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Explore Degrees

Peter Bahr and colleagues publish opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed

September 07, 2023

The co-authors share findings from a study that investigates the benefit of stackable credentials for students from low-income backgrounds.


Recent investments in stackable credentials from states including Colorado and Ohio, the federal government, and national organizations, suggest that such opportunities benefit students. But in an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, professor Peter Bahr, researcher Jennifer May-Trifiletti, and CSHPE doctoral candidate Rooney Columbus, question whether earning sequential credentials actually “pays off” for students from low-income backgrounds. 

Drawing from a recent study by University of Michigan and RAND, the authors highlight five takeaways: 

  • Credential stacking is common among certificate earners, especially those from low-income backgrounds.
  • Among certificate earners who stack credentials, those from low-income backgrounds often stack to associate or baccalaureate degrees. 
  • Stacking two credentials in the same field of study is about as common among students from low-income backgrounds as among students from middle-/high-income backgrounds.
  • Field of study matters because opportunities to stack credentials, labor market returns to credential stacking and enrollment of students from low-income backgrounds differ by field.
  • Students from low-income backgrounds are underrepresented in some fields with strong returns to credential stacking, including information technology (IT) and manufacturing and engineering technology (MET).

The authors conclude that although some types of credential stacking does benefit students from low-income backgrounds, not all types of stacking pay off equally. They suggest that policy makers and institutional leaders interested in designing or expanding stackable credential sequences might identify and focus on those with the strongest employment rate increases and earnings gains in their local labor markets. 

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Associate Professor, Marsal Family School of Education