Do Short-Term Credentials Stack Up?

A New Study Will Explore the Practice and Promise of Noncredit Workforce Training Programs

Earning short-term or “stackable” workforce training credentials is seen as a promising way for adult learners and workers to achieve economic mobility by developing increasing levels of skills and knowledge that can help them advance in their chosen fields. Noncredit career and technical education (CTE) programs at community colleges play an essential role in providing adult learners with occupationally focused credentials and workers with the skills they need to compete for high-demand jobs. Unlike credit-bearing college programs, CTE programs are intended to develop skills that provide direct pathways to specific careers.

How Do Stackable Credentials Work?

Often after obtaining an initial short-term certificate, individuals may decide to take an “off-ramp” from training into the workforce so they can earn money and gain on-the-job experience. Later they may take an “on-ramp” back to training for a second stackable credential, to further develop their skills, or back to a credit-bearing program to earn a degree. Either way, the goal is the same: to obtain a better-paying job.

As popular as such training has become, however, much remains unknown about the experiences of the students who take these classes or their labor market outcomes. For example:

  • What are the goals of the students who enroll in short-term, noncredit training classes?
  • Do students aim to grow their skills by stacking up a series of credentials, or are they planning to transfer into degree programs?
  • Do individuals who earn stackable credentials get jobs in their chosen occupations, and how much do they earn?

Policymakers, community colleges, and philanthropies have all invested heavily in the expansion of noncredit CTE programs, despite a lack of evidence that the programs are effective in supporting positive career outcomes. The research that does exist suggests that most people who obtain short-term credentials do not, in fact, earn either additional credentials or degrees. So it is critical to understand whether these training programs are effective at setting people on a path to career advancement, and what factors may be essential in order to replicate and scale up successful programs across a variety of educational settings.

Developing a strong evidence base to support the expansion of noncredit credential programs is a critical first step. For example, understanding what works best for students with different educational or work backgrounds could support the development of programs that lead to the strongest outcomes for the largest number of people. It could also help training providers better serve people who have been structurally marginalized from achieving traditional education and labor market success.

MDRC Study to Examine Noncredit CTE Programs

MDRC is launching a new study, the VCCS Noncredit CTE Study, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), and the University of Virginia, that is designed to answer these questions. The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, will systematically explore noncredit CTE programs across the 23 VCCS campuses to better understand student outcomes, including academic progression, program completion, credential attainment, and employment and earnings. Most of the noncredit CTE programs at VCCS consist of only one course that runs from 6 to 12 weeks and includes a mix of lectures and hands-on skill demonstrations. Each course leads to a credential, and credentials can be stacked over time. Although hundreds of CTE programs have been offered at the participating campuses, nearly three quarters of enrollments have come from ten programs in five occupational fields: health care (four programs), welding and manufacturing (two programs), logistics and transportation (two programs), information technology (one program), and skilled trades (one program).

The MDRC study will draw on a variety of data sources and analyses to examine the various approaches used by these programs to design and deliver training, the program factors that may influence students’ postsecondary educational and workforce outcomes, and students’ experiences in these programs. A strand of this research, funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, will delve more deeply into students’ goals, choices, and plans for the future that may influence the paths they take after completing such programs.

The VCCS Noncredit CTE Study launched in August 2022 and will continue for three years. The research reported here is being undertaken by the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and MDRC, and is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A220224 to UCI.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.