‘Stackable credentials’ could help more Colorado students

DENVER — Metropolitan State University of Denver is one of Colorado’s largest four-year institutions, but some students are spending just months there — not years — before joining the workforce.

They’re doing it by “stacking” credentials.

“Stackable credentials are really a convergence of individuals wanting to learn in smaller chunks and industries being willing to accept those chunks,” said Terry Bower, associate vice president of Innovative and Lifelong Learning at MSU Denver.

Bower and others are pushing back on the idea that higher education has to mean a four-year degree. It doesn’t even have to mean a two-year degree.

Instead, MSU Denver has created a model allowing students to earn a credential that can land them a job or they can keep stacking more credentials on top.

“We want to help you take that first step in your education, and if you decide you have enough, we’re going to tell you how much money you can make based on Colorado Department of Labor information and go get a job,” Bower said.

MSU Denver has created the career launchpad with the help of Colorado businesses. There are stackable credential programs for high demand industries like health care, cybersecurity and space flight.

The career launchpad lays out exactly what steps are needed to work in those industries and how much money a person can earn with different credentials.

For students who decide they want to add more credentials or work toward a degree, they can return to MSU with no credits lost.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger wants other colleges to develop similar programs. She’s co-sponsoring SB22-192, directing the state higher education department to come up with stackable credential pathways for at least three growing industries by 2024 and two more by 2025.

“We want [students] to be able to come in, get a credential that helps them upskill or re-skill or move up on their career ladder, and we want it to be in alignment so that they’re not wasting their time,” Zenzinger said.

Both Bower and Zenzinger agreed higher education needs more “on-ramps” and “off-ramps” where students have ways to move between the job market and college and continue lifelong learning.

“Whether they want to get a PhD for philosophy or they just want to learn some EDI [Equity/Diversity/Inclusion] for their job, I just want them in higher ed, getting smarter, gaining knowledge and learning whatever it is they want to learn,” Bower said.

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