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Incremental Credentials: Giving Students the Tools to Own Their Learning and Open Doors to the New Labor Market

The bachelor’s degree has long been considered the ticket to long-term employability and good jobs, and understandably so: studies show that people with degrees are more likely to be employed, and most of the newly created jobs in recent years, and most jobs with earnings above the median, have required bachelor’s degrees. But for several decades, evidence has mounted that many employers require bachelor’s degrees regardless of a job’s actual skill requirements. For that reason, because skills now have an average half-life of five years, and because new models for credential attainment are emerging, we at CAEL applaud recent efforts to introduce greater transparency about skill requirements for jobs and careers, as well as employers’ relaxation of degree requirements in the hiring process. 

More than ever, workers, learners, employers, and industry want postsecondary institutions to provide instruction, validation of learning, and credentials that are aligned with skills needed for employment and career mobility. And changes in our credentialing system that CAEL and our members have tested are promising, both for achieving that alignment and allowing individuals to make decisions – decisions about engaging in learning at their own pace, earning shorter-term credentials that lead to increased earnings and new career opportunities, and building on their credentials in an incremental way.  CAEL’s work with industry and postsecondary education institutions shows that this approach provides multiple benefits. Adult learners gain enhanced economic mobility and motivation to continue learning. Employers obtain access to a better-trained talent pool. And curricula better aligned to industry needs boost the value of postsecondary institutions to students, potential students, and industry. 

Shifting to a Skills-Based Labor Market
A February 2022 study produced by Harvard Business School (HBS)  in conjunction with Emsi Burning Glass (Emsi) provides empirical evidence of employer preferences shifting from degrees to skills. The HBS/Emsi study found a material decline in B.A.+ requirements, of more than 5%, in 46% of middle-skill and 31% of high-skill occupations due to what it identified as a structural reset in 2017-2019 and a cyclical reset since in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The HBS/Emsi study found that some employers that simply required college degrees and assumed they were accurate proxies of desired skills have shifted to job postings with decreased degree requirements and well-defined skills requirements instead. Within these postings, the study found two kinds of well-defined skill requirements: most commonly, skills related to durable human aptitudes such as communication, commitment, and the ability to collaborate with diverse stakeholders, and additionally, skills required for technical aspects of jobs. Based on the trends the HBS/Emsi report identified, its authors project that “an additional 1.4 million jobs could open to workers without college degrees over the next five years.”

This trend reduces inequality in employment. In a 2021 interview with NPR’s The Indicator from Planet Money, Opportunity@Work CEO Byron Auguste highlights one of the biggest concerns with using a bachelor’s degree as a sorting mechanism: namely, that it’s causing economic inequality to soar. “When you put a bachelor's degree screen and say, like, you know, no one without a bachelor's degree need apply, you're excluding 80% of Latinos in this country in the workforce. You're excluding almost 70% of African Americans, and very interestingly, about 70% of rural Americans of all backgrounds,” said Auguste. Many workers without degrees who have built skills and knowledge through past employment or alternative routes are automatically deemed unqualified according to poorly crafted job postings and applicant tracking system searches, a result that hurts both employers and job candidates.

Emerging Models and Frameworks for Incremental Credentials

Workers with associate and bachelor’s degrees have experienced higher job and career earnings for many years, and they are likely to continue to do so, even as employers shift from degrees to skills in hiring. The challenge for the education and training sector is to serve both needs by developing new systems of shorter-term credentials that build on each other in ways that:

  • Open doors to better-paying occupations for individuals who navigate on- and off-ramps between work and learning; 
  • Serve as building blocks toward associate and/or bachelor’s degrees that open even more labor market and career advancement opportunities; and
  • Are valued and trusted by adult learners, the companies that employ them, and the postsecondary institutions they attend.

A key initiative designed to support new models for incremental credentialing is Credentials as You Go (CAYG), which has built a framework for categorizing approaches to incremental credentialing. CAYG has built six different incremental credentialing models:

Figure 1:

Learn As You Go

Incremental credentials stand on their own, unconnected to a degree, but prepare individuals for upskilling, reskilling, or developing new skills in specific workforce areas. 

Add On As You Go

Incremental credentials are obtained for specializations that add on to a degree pathway but may not necessarily be planned in the pathway.

Stack As You Go

Incremental credentials add together or stack into larger credentials and degrees and are planned into credentialing pathways.

Transfer As You Go

Incremental credentials are built to transfer across institutions and are a potential cost-sharing mechanism (students cross-register to another institution to pick up a specialty that the home institution does not offer).

Partner As You Go

Incremental credentials prepare for and include field-expected credentials for work, as well as work-related credentials that are accepted into degree or other credentialing pathways, developed in conjunction with business/industry partner(s).

Retro As You Go

Incremental credentials are awarded for learning already acquired but not yet credentialed.


CAEL Industry Education Partnership Credential Models to Support Adult Learners

In CAEL’s work, and in the work of so many of our members and clients, we have seen many examples of incremental credentials, most often following the “Add on As You Go” and “Stack As You Go” models, in which institutions are incorporating incremental credentials – both from within and without the institution — into degree pathways. These models provide opportunities for short-term labor market gains for learners through certifications and microcredentials, as well as the potential for long-term labor market gains if they continue along a structured learning pathway toward degree attainment. 

CAEL’s industry education partnership with Energy Providers Coalition for Education (EPCE) is a great example of the stackable model. Developed in partnership with Bismarck State College (BSC), a CAEL member institution, these career pathways start with short-term certificates in specific skills needed by energy employers, and employees can build on each shorter-term option in an incremental way. 


Short-Term Certificates (Less Than a Year) 

BSC offers short-term certificates to develop transferable skill sets specific to a job or a career. Certificates, which can be stacked to progress toward an associate or bachelor’s degree, are offered in:

  • Cybersecurity Fundamentals.
  • Modern Computing. 
  • Offensive and Defensive Security. 
  • Secure Programming.
  • Security and Hacking.


Program Certificates (One Year) 

Program certificates provide specialized education directly for an employee’s major area of focus. Most program certificates have pathway options to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. Program certificates are offered in: 

  • Water and Wastewater Technology. 
  • Lineworker (Electrical).


Program Certificates (Two Years) 
  • Electric Power Technology.  
  • Electrical Transmission Systems Technology. 
  • Energy Services and Renewable Technician.

In addition, EPCE has partnered with Excelsior College, another CAEL member, to provide short-term Leadership and Project Management Certificates designed to equip workers with skills needed in the energy industry. 

Similarly, CAEL’s communications industry education partnership, the National Alliance for Communications Technology Education and Learning, NACTEL, also provides a stackable model in partnership with Pace University that maps pathways from badges and certificates to master’s degrees (see figure).



Click here for a larger view of this image: https://www.nactel.org/education-pyramid/

Institution-Level CAEL Member Models

Many CAEL members are blazing trails in the “Stack As You Go” arena. For example, Anne Arundel Community College has a catalog of 20+ stackable certificates in which all of the courses contained in the certificate program match the course requirements for an associate degree program. This allows learners to level up from a certificate in digital forensics to an Associate of Applied Science in Information Assurance and Cybersecurity - Digital Forensics. 

American Public University System has also embraced stackable microcredentials with their NanoCertTM programs. In these programs, academic credits earned can be applied to a corresponding certificate or associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree. They were created to help learner-earners level up or achieve a career transition in a short amount of time. By providing learner-earners the ability to track both short-term and long-term goals on one pathway, these CAEL members are creating avenues to success for those who may have otherwise been left out of the labor market. 

The other approach we’ll highlight is “Add on As You Go,” in which credentials earned in pursuit of industry specialization outside of an institution are added into a degree pathway, though they are not always planned within that pathway. As adult-friendly institutions, many CAEL members serve students who come to them with short-term credentials they have earned outside a higher education institution, typically as part of their own employment journey. In part these learner-earners seek out CAEL members because of their broad acceptance of alternative and incremental credentials – a key differentiator in today’s learning marketplace. 

A good example of “Add On As You Go” is CAEL partner Ivy Tech, which uses a systematic process to evaluate the learning from non-credit, industry-approved credentials and map that to their existing degree and credential programs. A learner-earner can then build on their incremental credential program toward a new learning pathway — without having planned that process from the beginning. This provides learner-earners with flexibility to pivot without stepping backward. 

Empowering the Learner Through Incremental Credentials

Incremental credential models empower learner-earners by putting ownership of their learning into their own hands in addition to providing an approach that works for them in the context of their employment, personal, and family responsibilities. For example, in “Add On As You Go” models, institutions recognize the autonomy of the learner-earner to build the credentialing pathway that supports their career journey.  Employers define the value of a credential for the hiring and promotion processes. Institutions both provide learning that leads to credential and validate the learning that a learner-earner brings in awarding credit and conferring credentials. And ultimately learner-earners own the credential. 

We strengthen our economy and our labor market by situating the skill-development journey within learner-earners’ loci of control. Doing so empowers and motivates them for success along that journey, from short-term occupational advancement to long-term career achievements. 


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