Vocational school student
Elizabeth Morrison

“Is college worth it?” This question is being asked more and more as the cost of tuition continues to rise. During a recent presidential debate, it was stated that “welders make more than philosophers”; the implication was that those who go to trade schools often make more than those who earned a traditional college degree. While going to college is about more than just earning a paycheck, labor market outcomes are something we should consider.

Business leaders have voiced concerns over how unprepared recent graduates are to enter into the workforce, many of them citing the lack of applicable skills as a major problem. The Alabama Community College System projected that over the next year, 5,000 skilled worker jobs will need to be filled in southwest Alabama alone. 

Having recognized this problem, several states are backing programs that would allow students enrolled in vocational training programs to earn credentials at a faster rate, continue to build on those credentials, and keep them no matter where they move. They are considered portable and stackable. Portable in the sense that, as the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation notes, they are “trusted by employers and educational institutions throughout the country… they would be independently verified or accredited”; and “stackable” in the sense that they can be combined with each other to earn industry certifications or even associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

An example of a portable credential is the National Career Readiness Certificate. This credential measures the test-taker’s ability to solve problems, think and read critically, and understand and use work-related text. The certificate is recognized in 42 states and can be used by employers to help predict an applicant’s ability to succeed in the workplace.

Virginia addressed the need for skilled workers in 2008 by creating the Virginia Career Pathways System. This system includes training programs like apprenticeships so students can earn credit toward a certificate or degree while also getting hands-on training.

Mississippi created a similar system in 2005 that has 4 levels of skills achievement. It starts with an Adult Basic Education Certificate, then moves on to a Manufacturing Skills Basic Certification. At the next level, students can choose the manufacturing skill they want to learn in depth and enroll in a program devoted to it. Finally, the industry knowledge they acquire can be used for college credits toward a degree.

Stackable credentials are more flexible than traditional degrees, appear more in tune with what employers want, and may be collected over time at a lower cost. They are a promising way to help students get the preparation they need to be successful in the job market.

About the Author

Elizabeth Morrison
Elizabeth Morrison
Education Policy Research Assistant
Elizabeth Morrison is an education policy research assistant at the Show-Me Institute. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Regent University.