Stackable Credentials


A credential is considered stackable when it is part of a sequence of industry-recognized credentials that (1) can be accumulated over time to demonstrate individuals’ expanded knowledge and competencies, and (2) helps them advance within a career pathway.

Stackable credentials are often viewed as credential pathways. The pathways consist of multiple, sequential awards that either allow students to earn successively higher-level credentials (“progressive” programs) or build a “lattice” of interconnected credentials. 

There are four common types of stackable credentials:

  1. Traditional stackable credentials—Also known as progressive stackable credentials, follow a linear path. Students earn a short-term credential such as a certificate and continue their education by pursuing a higher-level credential such as an associate and/or bachelor’s degree. 
  2. Supplemental or value-add stackable credentials — Do not follow a linear path but still allow students to enter and exit the higher education system as needed. Individuals may already have earned a bachelor’s degree, then attend a boot camp or other credential program to learn additional skills to supplement the degree.
  3. Independent stackable credentials —Paths in which individuals accumulate multiple credentials but do not pursue a degree. These credentials build on one another in that individuals acquire skills that craft a path forward in their careers, but the credentials do not ladder into a singular degree pathway.
  4. Work-based learning / apprenticeships / employer-sponsored training — Combine on-the-job training with formal educational instruction. For example, stacked apprenticeships are shorter-term programs in which individuals pursue a series of related apprenticeships to build their skill set. An individual participating in an industrial manufacturing technician apprenticeship program could learn how to operate production equipment, and then pursue additional manufacturing opportunities to acquire more related skills. 

Accredible describes three ways in which credentials can be stacked:

  1. Vertical stacking — The most common form occurs when a single topic is explored in increasing detail. 
  2. Horizontal stacking —The acquisition of knowledge across several topics. 
  3. Hybrid stacking — Combines vertical and horizontal stacking; learners explore multiple topics in increasing levels of difficulty. 

Stackable credentials are an emerging trend in higher education because many students want to develop their career skills but do not have the flexibility in their work and family schedules to commit to a longer-term program. At least 17 states have allocated funding to community colleges to develop stackable credentials pathways, and 10 states require their community college systems to offer and advertise stacking options.

Federal and state policies influence the development of stackable credentials. Several states have directed funding from the CARES Act to support workforce development for adult workers and boost postsecondary enrollment. In some states, this takes the form of targeted aid for displaced workers. Other states have expanded eligibility for existing programs to include individuals who were previously ineligible for aid programs. 

There are many ways states and institutions are creating stackable credentials: 

  • Modularize degree programs such as applied associate degree and technical diploma programs, baccalaureate, and graduate-level programs.
  • Embed industry and professional certifications in traditional credential (degree and certificate) programs.  
  • Streamline and scale processes used to award credit for learning represented by non-collegiate credentials.
  • Create "lattice credentials" that allow students to move up a career ladder within an occupational field and/or across multiple pathways in a career lattice. 
  • Create dual-enrollment options that enable learners to work concurrently toward a high school diploma or its equivalent, marketable postsecondary credentials, and industry certifications.

While most attention around stackable credentials has focused on career and technical education, there is growing interest in moving to stackable credentialing in bachelor’s and master’s programs.

Relation to Ecosystem

Stackable credentials are an important pathway within the learn-and-work ecosystem. Learners seeking to develop career skills through shorter-term education programs may complete those and enter the career market directly and may also continue to higher level credentials offered through the pathway.

Alternative Terms

  • Articulation
  • Incremental credentials
  • Pathways


Castleman, B. and Meyer, K. (February 2, 2021). Stackable credentials can open doors to new career opportunities. Brookings 

Covelli, B. (February 18, 2020). Bringing Stackable Credentials into Graduate Degree Programs. The Evolllution

Editor. (2021, October 5). What Are Stackable Credentials?

Ganzglass, E. (2014, March). Scaling "Stackable Credentials" - Implications for Implementation and Policy.  CLASP.

Ganzglass, E. (2022, March). Certifications As Tools for Promoting Economic Mobility. Corporation for a Skilled Workforce.

Quigley, J. (2021, January 12).  What Are Stacked Credentials? Accredible.

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