University of Louisville Uses Stackable Credentials to Re-enroll Stop-outs

Fully 36 million people have attended some college but didn’t make it all the way to graduation. How can we re-enroll these students in programs that provide valuable skills for both them and the workforce?

Dr. Matt Bergman, Associate Professor at University of Louisville, returned to the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about their short-term stackable credentials and why they may be the most effective program offering to help re-enroll the stop-out student.

What is the stackable credentials approach?

Many institutions are trying to be innovative in thinking about how to get former college students to reconnect with them. The idea behind Louisville’s approach is for participants to get a win fairly quickly, something they can stack and move towards attaining a bachelor’s degree. 

With the stackable credential, students can reconnect and stop out as they need to based on how what they’re learning connects directly with relevant needs in the workforce.

For example, Louisville recently launched a four-course, 12-credit Human Resources Leadership Certificate. Learners can come in as continuing education students. They can use the work-ready scholarship through the Commonwealth of Kentucky to potentially pay for the credits and get the certificate. 

But the kicker? All four of the courses in this program will count towards their major if they choose to move towards a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership at the University of Louisville.

The target, the audience, and the end-game

Does the audience for this stackable credential come exclusively from people who want to pursue a bachelor’s in organizational leadership? Is the credential just a rung on the degree ladder? Or do some independent learners regard it as the end-game?

“We are in our infancy,” Matt said. “So we’re just seeing a range of people plug in, and it has not launched to a broad swath of individuals yet.” 

As originally conceived, the degree was for people in industry with some college credit but no degree. However, many people who take advantage of the program already hold credentials, and some even have a master’s degree. They just want to skill up in a specific focus.

The 10-year plan and the 30-year journey

Like other higher education institutions, the University of Louisville is trying to find a way towards greater prosperity.

Creating formal reciprocal partnerships with industries is one way to achieve that goal in the next 10 years. In this scenario, schools send graduates out, but companies also send these people back to skill up with short-term credentials.

“We’ll create the pathway to health and prosperity as an industry in higher education,” Matt said. “And it will give us this love and appreciation that we had back in the day and we’ve lost a bit.”

The 30-year journey of the stackable credential

Many people once plugged into higher education and then unplugged for some reason. Maybe they got deployed or had a child or got a job offer they couldn’t turn down. Whatever the reason, the vast majority of these individuals did not separate from higher education because they couldn’t hack it or because they failed out. Life just happened.

That is where institutions can say, “Well, we’re ready for life to intervene again in a positive way to improve your knowledge and skills, whether you are a early, mid, or late career person, or you’ve already finished your career and you want to finish a long-held dream of getting to a baccalaureate degree.” 

Most institutions already maintain hybrid, online, evening, and weekend options. The pandemic has accelerated those learning trends already. Now, Louisville is creating pathways that show short-term wins for individuals that can stack onto a broader and more robust educational attainment at all academic levels.

Asking prior students for a second chance

Prior learning assessment (PLA) is an amazing tool that universities and colleges across the country should be using. Unfortunately, many are suspicious. Will it erode degree quality? Depress graduation rates? Or eat into tuition income?

According to the data, the answers are: no, no, and no, respectively.

“The way I see PLA is the way we saw online learning 10 years ago,” Matt told us. “What we see 10 years from now about PLA is the way we believe about online learning today.” 

Today’s skepticism about PLA will vanish, he predicts. A national study of 70-plus institutions published by CAEL and WICHE showed that a person who has access to PLA is more likely to graduate. Not only that, but they actually take more college credits with the institution. 

Seem counterintuitive? Look at it in the aggregate. The retention level for adult learners is so abysmal that the minute we give them access and acknowledge what they bring, they are more likely to graduate. These improved graduation rates mean Louisville is also seeing a net positive for tuition revenue from PLA.

Why consider a stackable credentials program?

People who want a quick, no-frills approach to a bachelor’s degree can get one using a stackable credential pathway. Upon graduation, they often say something like, “Oh, my gosh. I really love learning again. Tell me about a master’s degree.” 

“We see more and more individuals moving toward doctoral studies just because they absolutely love the content that they’re in,” Matt said. 

That’s because universities are committed to developing relevant, rigorous, and research-based curriculum that ties in with industry in a way that didn’t used to happen.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Matt Bergman of the University of Louisville. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.