“I was in a Muppets Christmas movie with the rat and the chef… After a while when you're talking to the puppets, you forget they're puppets. You just look them in the eye. It's really something."
- Steve Schirripa of The Sopranos on the Talking Sopranos podcast
Somewhere down the long list of realistic experiences portrayed in the legendary HBO show The Sopranos is postsecondary education. Meadow Soprano attends Columbia and has a hard time deciding between medical school and law school. Jackie Aprile Jr. drops out of Rutgers. A.J. Soprano flunks out of Ramapo College. And after getting out of the can, cousin Tony Blundetto attends a massage therapy program. Although long-term employment outcomes are muddied by the fact that two of the four are violently killed, there is one encouraging sign: Tony Blundetto passes the New Jersey State Massage Licensing Board exam and plans to open his own practice.
Long before The Sopranos first aired, and eons before the Talking Sopranos podcast began close reading each line in every episode and pondering connections to Italian restaurants, Off-Broadway theater, and boldface names who may have crossed buoyant Rat Pack-ish hosts Steve Schirripa and Michael Imperioli at some point (e.g., Tiger Woods, “the worst tipper in the universe”), short-term credentials were the province of the down-on-his-luck Tony Blundettos of the world, not the upwardly mobile Meadow Sopranos. But with a bipartisan amendment to the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act proposed last week by Senators Kaine and Portman, short-term credentials may be approaching a more respectable exit on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The amendment would have made credentials as short as 8 weeks or 150 clock hours eligible for Pell Grants. The short-term Pell debate has raged in Washington, DC for years, with conservatives generally in favor of anything that disrupts traditional higher education and progressives genuinely concerned about quality. As a result, Senators Kaine and Portman would have limited eligibility to programs offered by public and nonprofit institutions and required schools to somehow show a 20% increase in earnings. Although the amendment was stripped out at the last minute due to an objection by Senator Paul, as sure as Carmela Soprano buries her misgivings about ill-gotten wealth, this won’t be the last we hear about short-term Pell this year.
The problem with short-term credentials, as New America recently summarized in a study of training programs in Washington State, is that the people we most want to benefit rarely do. Last week, former Deputy Under Secretary of Postsecondary Education Bob Shireman wrote that even without the involvement of the private sector providers he continues to label as “predatory” (clearly a different genus than the private sector providers of products and services purchased and consumed by the Shireman household), it’s still a terrible idea because Pell Grants would eliminate “skin in the game” for institutions and employers: “The shift to vouchers destroys that critical accountability, making the sales process to prospective students the sole driver of program creation and funding.”
What everyone seems to agree on is stackable credentials. As long as short-term credentials stack to longer (more respectable) credentials, everyone loves stacking as much as Tony Soprano loves snacking on gabagool. Stackable credentials are also a plausible strategy for tens of thousands of bachelor’s degree programs currently leading to excessive student loan debt and underemployment. Cengage’s recent Graduate Employability Report shows half of all college graduates refrain from applying to an entry-level job in their field because they feel unqualified. As Cengage CEO Michael Hansen notes, “academic institutions need to break beyond the traditional degree and offer different programs that help learners develop the skills and experiences they need to be employable postgraduation.” And according to Strada Education Network, 60% of Americans – understandably impatient after a year-long pandemic – now prefer short-term training to degree programs.
College and university degrees could be dramatically improved by incorporating short-term skill-based credentials. The stackable credentials epiphany is a rare chocolate-in-your-peanut-butter moment for higher education and has gained evangelists like Workcred (an affiliate of the American National Standards Institute that has partnered with the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities), and Holly Zanville and Nan Travers’ Credential As You Go.
But as Goldie Blumenstyk pointed out last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education “even if certificate programs are theoretically stackable, they are rarely stacked in practice” (which explains why there hasn’t been an outcry over Kaplan’s regrettably named “credegree”). So the question is what form they should take so they do stack.
Before we met The Sopranos, there was the Marshall family. On the 70s television show Land of the Lost, dinosaurs weren’t sexist killers like Paulie Walnuts. They were real dinosaurs. Dad Rick and kids Will and Holly not only struggled to survive T-Rex, but also 7-foot tall extra-dimensional cave-dwelling reptiles called Sleestak. Sleestak had one modest goal: capture the Marshalls and sacrifice them to the Sleestak god.
While some Gen-Xers may have been frightened by Sleestak, most of us found them ridiculous. Although they supposedly numbered in the thousands, we never saw more than three. (Turns out the show couldn’t afford more than three Sleestak costumes.) More important, with their bulbous unblinking eyes, they looked totally fake – obviously simulacra or puppets, not real things. So while Steve Schirripa may forget puppets aren’t real, it’s hard to imagine anyone making that mistake with Sleestak.
Just as degrees are not all created equal, short-term credentials are not all created equal. As far as I can tell, there are three types:
1. Short-term credentials that lead to licensure
2. Short-term credentials that are recognized by industry
3. Short-term credentials that are made up by colleges and universities
Door #3 leads to Sleestaks. When faculty make up short-term credentials – i.e., certificates – they’re not stackable: they’re Sleestak-able. What’s the point of obtaining a made-up certificate employers don’t understand? It’s not much of an improvement over a transcript showing a random assortment of unknown courses which employers rarely consider in the hiring process – and never at the top of the hiring funnel where the fate of each résumé is decided (filtered through to an actual human hiring manager or blocked). So-called “Stackable Credentials” in Business Administration, IT Support, Computer Accounting Technology, or Life Science Lab Assistant at St. Louis Community College or “Nexus” certificates that stack to University System of Georgia degrees are more accurately “Sleestak-able.” They’re made up.
Even the giants of higher education innovation aren’t immune to Sleestak-able credentials. Last year I lauded BYU-Pathway Worldwide for upside down degrees, but recognized its 31 certificates as sui generis and probably not intelligible to employers. That’s Sleestak-ing, not stacking. And edX, a creation of Harvard and MIT, launched “stackable” MicroBachelors programs with certificates from Arizona State and Southern New Hampshire which universities like Western Governors have proven willing to stack. Do employers understand SNHU’s certificate in Business Analytics Foundations powered by edX? If not, what are these giants doing to make that de novo certificate meaningful at the top of the hiring funnel?
The answer is there’s not much they can do unless the short-term credential in question is already recognized by industry or leads to licensure (because then it shows up in the job description). And even licensure is an increasingly dicey proposition. Over the past few decades, presumably for a lack of better things to do, state governments have dramatically expanded occupational licensing, including for low wage jobs like manicurists, tour guides, personal trainers, and hair dressers. But if the jobs aren’t good, stackable short-term credentials that lead to licensure can’t be good either. Conversely, if the jobs are historically and properly licensed, like many in the healthcare (not nailcare or haircare) profession, then stack away.
So industry-recognized credentials – i.e., certifications – must be at the heart of any serious stacking strategy. According to Credential Engine, there are more than 8,000 industry-recognized certifications across dozens of sectors, most prominently technology, healthcare, and building and construction trades. Certifications are closer to licensure than certificates in one important respect: typically awarded following a high-stakes assessment. Van Ton-Quinlivan, former Executive Vice Chancellor for Workforce at California Community Colleges, tells of a colleague who gathered the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and International Facilities Management Association (IFMA) and ascertained an urgent shortage of workers with the HVAC/R (heating, ventilation, air conditioning, refrigeration) certification awarded by NATE (North American Technician Excellence). This alphabet soup of an exercise revealed no Southern California community college offered an aligned program and convinced faculty to standardize on NATE’s HVAC/R certification. Eric Bing, Chancellor of the College of Health Care Professions, has launched a pathway that stacks CT, mammography, and MRI certifications to a radiologic technology associate’s degree. And Van’s new venture, Futuro Health, a partnership of SEIU-United Health Workers and Kaiser Permanente, is stacking a healthcare IT pathway atop the Google IT Support Professional Certificate.
It’s obvious why traditional colleges and universities haven’t been in a rush to stack industry-recognized certifications. Besides HVAC/R, CT, and MRI, there’s ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), VCP-DCV (VMware Certified Professional – Data Center Virtualization), CISA (Certified Information Systems Auditor), CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional), PMP (Project Management Professional), CRISC (Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control), and CISM (Certified Information Security Manager). None sound particularly fun. And none are particularly easy to incorporate into established degree programs. But there’s the rub. If we want chocolate-in-your-peanut-butter stackable credential magic, we need to let employers and industry not only inform or advise, but actually drive. They know a bit more than faculty about what’s relevant for employment.
Convincing faculty to change behavior is harder than allowing them to make up certificates. And the degree of difficulty is particularly high now given increased sensitivity around shared governance following pandemic academic governance norm-flouting. But college and university boards, presidents, provosts, and department heads should recognize that implementing stackable credentials while allowing faculty to make up certificates may be self-defeating and perceived as yet another higher education bait and switch. Overcoming faculty objections could require an experienced, authoritative third-party, which is exactly how Workcred hopes to help.
Just as degrees aren’t all created equal and short-term credentials aren’t all created equal, stacking isn’t created equal. There’s stacking of industry-recognized certifications, and then there’s Sleestak-ing. And neither employers nor students want credentials that look like Sleestaks. They want credentials that are realistic, like The Sopranos.