Alternative credential stacking

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

This is Part 2 that follows Alternative credentials – micro-credentials, stackable credentials, and digital badges

The key to understanding alternative credentials isn’t so much the technology or the badging, it’s actually the pathways to or from HEI or to or from industry/professions. In other words, do they lead to something and is this something recognized? This is where stacking comes in.

Stackable credentials are composed of a sequence of credentials that stack or accumulate towards an additional credential.  According to Ganzglass (2014) they serve “to build up an individual’s qualifications and help them to move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to different and potentially higher-paying jobs.” (p.2). Stacking can refer to micro-credentials, digital credentials or badges, or already established HEI credentials such as certificates, degrees and diplomas.

Characteristics of stackable credentials include, but are not limited to the following:

  • They constitute industry recognized credentials
  • They articulate to a higher-level credential in the same occupational area
  • They may be offered by an HEI or other type of organisation as long as they articulate to a higher credential recognized in that jurisdiction (Wilson, 2016, p.2)

Additionally, Crampton (n.d.) notes:

  • each credential in the “stack” should be of short duration 
  • each should have labor market value by themselves 

However, as we will below, stacking has spawned a variety of types that may contradict some of these characteristics.



Also called progression stacking by Bailey and Belfield, 2017) – refers to short-term certificates that lead to a higher-level degree or credential. 


  • vertical stacking of 30 credit certificates towards a degree
  • post-graduate certificates that lead towards a graduate degree within the same institution
  • credentials that lead towards an external professional designation

Supplemental (or complementary)

Refers to stacking that supplements earned degrees for upskilling purposes. For example, supplementing a bachelor’s degree with a certificate in a more marketable occupational area; supplementing an individual’s job skills with a new skill as responsibilities grow or change (Bailey and Belfield, 2017).


  • post-degree non-credit certificates that make your degree more marketable


Refers to an accumulation of a series of compatible short-term credentials to level up skills or to improve labour market opportunities. In this case stacking does not lead to a higher credential but constitutes an accumulation of related or unrelated short-term credentials (ibid).


  • earning badges from LinkedIn Learning to add to your profile


Refers to horizontal pathways where a core set of courses can be applied to several certificates within an organization.

Portability and recognizability

The portability of alternative credential stacking is also a characteristic, because it is really answering the question: Does HEI care about and recognize the alternative credential you earned in industry? Does industry care about and recognize your alternative credential earned in HEI?

Unsurprisingly, most of the stacking examples above occur within an organization and within an HEI, and in some cases, don’t really appear to be very “alternative”. So what does it look like in the other direction? There are a couple of examples to point to:

1. Industry-provided badge curriculumHubspot

Students can take certifications and receive badges via Hubspot, but instructors/education partners can freely access and adapt the Hubspot curriculum for use in their courses.

2. Industry-embedded certificationsIBM and Northeastern University

Individuals with an IBM-issued badge receive graduate credit upon enrolling in select Northeastern professional Masters degree programs. 

3. Industry standalone with preferential pricing for students at institutions (supplementary)Society of Wine Educators

The badge certifications add value to the badge by clearly connecting it to current employment opportunities via the badging platform.  Institutions can have a preferential rate for their students who are supplementing their education with these certifications.

But like HEI, aside from the examples above, industry credentials seem to stay within the organization and aren’t necessarily recognizable by HEI.

As noted in the previous post, PLAR, transfer credit systems, and industry/HEI/professional association collaboration are key to making alternative credentials more portable and recognizable, and there is much more work to do in this area. However, this being tackled in a number of ways, and I’ll just point to a few examples.

  1. In Europe, a project is underway to develop “mechanisms for the assessment and certification of learning outcomes achieved through OER” based on UNESCO and European Commission recommendations.  It outlines several challenges that are being addressed via a recognition framework for micro-credentials, and a meta-data standard and credentials clearinghouse to help facilitate the operations of the framework.  
  2. Building on the above, the ECCOE – European Credit Clearinghouse for Opening up Education – h/t to Deborah Arnold for sharing that with me and letting me know that this is one of her projects.
  3. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) is often cited for its introduction of micro-credentials to its regulated training and education system. When NZQA approves a micro-credential, it is published on a micro-credential register. The process invites industry, community and employers to work with the HEI to develop micro-credentials.
  4. Services such as Credential Engine could speed up the ability for organisations to recognize a credential by collecting credential data and making it transparent and comparable.   

Another note about designing for equity

The point of my previous post was the importance of considering equity in the design of alternative credentials. This includes: a) more research and monitoring as to whether alternative credentials are serving all kinds of students and not just the ones who have the time, money, privilege to supplement their education; b) ensuring that shorter term credentials don’t create a two tiered system that doesn’t result in less advantaged students gaining employment benefits from completing short term credentials. For example, from a student cost perspective, at the moment the main advantage of some vertically alternative credentials is that they distribute the cost of higher ed over smaller payments, but in some cases they may actually be more expensive than a regular HEI credit bearing course. So there is a fair amount of scrutiny that needs to be applied to how we talk about the advantages of some types of alternative credentials.

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