Take a moment to picture a "traditional education." What does it consist of in your mind? Maybe you imagine it in terms of a timeline, with a student progressing from middle school to high school, and onto an apprenticeship or college, and then right into a career. While this is an idealized concept for receiving and education and beginning a career, there is a growing percentage of the population, particularly with youth ages 16-24, approaching education and career training in a more practical format. This new format is the stackable credentials approach.

For a growing percentage of Americans, the stackable credentials approach is a more practical approach to getting an education. In essence, this approach sees students attain certificates and degrees in manageable increments. This helps the students because they can progress at their own pace. For example, a student may start out with the sole intention of taking a certificate program. Once they've received the certification, they may decide to expand their knowledge and marketability by pursuing an associate's degree. Then, if they choose, a bachelor's degree, or even a graduate degree. With stackable credentials, there is nothing limiting the level of achievement a student can attain. What separates stacking credentials from the traditional approach to education is the student doesn't commit the time or expense of spending four, or more, consecutive years in a college or university.

The flexibility of stackable credentials has always made it a popular choice amongst working adults with hectic schedules and vying commitments. Its affordability and self-paced methodology also makes it a powerful method for educating and employing another segment of the population, one that typically struggles in traditional educational systems: Opportunity Youth.

Who Are Opportunity Youth?

Opportunity Youth refers to individuals ages 16-24 that are neither working nor in school. Many are high school dropouts and the majority are from poor or working-class families. The greatest commonality connecting Opportunity Youth is that traditional education " its traditional timeline and teaching format " has not worked for them; and, as a result, a lack of education or requisite vocational skills has prevented them from finding a place in the job market.

For Opportunity Youth, a non-traditional approach, such as the stackable credential strategy, is highly effective at educating, training, skilling and ultimately enabling this group of people to pursue postsecondary education and establish themselves in a career.

The Advantages of Stackable Credentials 

Segmenting the stages of an education has a number of practical advantages over traditional education. Chief among them is cost. Stackable credentials are attractive to non-traditional learners because they can attain an education at a fraction of what it would cost at a college or university. Prohibitive tuition costs are a massive barrier to receiving a traditional education. And, for students personally responsible for paying tuition fees, enrolling in a four-year college requires they take on substantial debt, creating a significant obstacle for someone who has yet to build any earning power. Many students will not pay off their debt for a decade or more, while others will default on their loans.

It is understandable young Americans are apprehensive about taking the material financial risk required for a four-year degree. Instead, it makes practical and economic sense to attain a certificate first, which can be attained more quickly and affordably. And, certificates carry clout. Students can leverage certificates to get a job and establish a source of income. Then, once they've established a financial foundation, they can pursue an associate's or bachelor's degree.

Using an incremental, stacking approach, students avoid debt and a burdensome up-front investment of time and still achieve the same academic degrees, certifications, and jobs opportunities as peers following the more traditional educational model. Additionally, stackable credentials allow learners to complete their education in manageable increments, helping to balance their studies with other commitments.

Introducing Opportunity Youth to Stackable Credentials

Getting Opportunity Youth to embrace the stackable credentials approach is all about having them understand the tangible impact a certificate or degree can have on their life. Certificates and degrees increase the likelihood that an individual finds a job. So, to start them down the stackable credential path, equip them with the tools to find a job.

Offer Opportunity Youth access to a variety of entry-level certificate programs that are not only of interest to the student, but are viable and attractive to potential employers. Look for certificate programs that are aligned with, or can prepare students to earn industry-recognized credentials, such as the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PTCE) or the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) Certification Tests. Once a student is gainfully employed as a direct result of skills training, they will understand the value of their initiative, generating the momentum to continue their studies and improve their career and earning potential.

The power of the stackable credential approach is that in re-starting their education students aren't required to make a huge commitment from the outset. Minimal effort is required to get the ball rolling. Students already in structured environments like Job Corps or YouthBuild have committed to developing skills. They can start slow and move at their own pace, building up steam and confidence over time.

With more than 15 percent of the 16-24 year old demographic now classified as Opportunity Youth, creating a range of certificate programs can have a profound impact on society, potentially improving the economy while reducing crime and poverty statistics.

The Other Benefits of Stackable Credentials for Opportunity Youth

In addition to stacking credentials vertically, continuing to develop expertise in a particular discipline, students can also stack credentials horizontally. This is critical to helping individuals maintain marketability throughout the duration of their career.

In today's volatile global economy, where ebbs and flows of regional economies are unpredictable and reverberate globally, where entire industries or regional economies can disappear in a decade, and where emerging economic powerhouses can appear seemingly overnight, there are real advantages to choosing a short-term certificate program.

Short-term programs ensure students are building skills for trades that are in-demand in the moment. The stackable credential approach allows Opportunity Youth to be agile and adapt to shifting markets. And, when economic conditions change, which they inevitably do, students leveraging the stackable approach can pivot quickly, attaining new requisite skills required for employment in a new field or vocation. And, they can do it quickly without a large investment in time or money.   


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