It wasn’t planned.
The path that led Candice Retas from an interest in studying music and the arts to a career in nursing was one that just unfolded.
“I definitely did not map this out,” Ms. Retas, 26, said with a laugh. “It was kind of one step at a time.”
Actually, it was one credential, one academic building block at a time.
The first was the associate degree from Nassau Community College that Ms. Retas, who is from Elmont, N.Y., earned in 2012.
“I’d originally wanted to have a career in music and painting,” she said. “But then I took this biology class and really liked it, and did well in it.”
With her interest in medicine sparked by that class and subsequent science courses she took at N.C.C., which is in Garden City, she went on to earn a medical assistant’s certificate from a local campus of the Sanford-Brown Institute, which is now defunct. That led to a job as a medical office assistant in Northwell Health’s Division of Infectious Diseases in Manhasset, N.Y.
With the encouragement of her colleagues, Ms. Retas decided to pursue a bachelor of science degree in science, technology and society at Farmingdale State College. She expects to graduate in December, then go to nursing school — from there, it will be a master’s in nursing and ultimately a career as a nurse practitioner.
“It’s a lot of work, but I’m actually enjoying it,” said Ms. Retas, who takes her classes online and at night while working full time at Northwell, a major New York-area hospital system.
Although she stressed that her educational path was not carefully planned, this step-by-step accumulation of credentials — two-year degree, certification, bachelor’s degree — is part of what many in higher education view as an important trend, one that can lead to careers in STEM professions hungry for skilled workers and open doors for older and lower-income students.
“The four-year undergraduate experience is often out of reach for large segments of our population,” said Kemi Jona, associate dean for digital innovation and enterprise learning at Northeastern University in Boston. Moreover, he said, “the idea of getting that one degree and you’re set for life doesn’t really hold water anymore. Then the question becomes, ‘how do we make it easier for working adults and people who need to pick up new kinds of tools and technologies?’”
The answer: stackable credits, which Cassandra Horii, director of Caltech’s center for teaching, learning and outreach, defined as “a more bite-sized piece of education that stands on its own and has value in the workplace.” But “if you continue on your educational trajectory, that piece fully counts towards your next educational step.”
The stackable term itself, noted Jimmie Williamson and Matthew Pittinsky in an article in “Inside Higher Education,” is “clever, invoking the image of Lego blocks and the metaphor of assembly.”
The blocks being assembled, they wrote, are a “series of traditional degree-based and/or nontraditional credentials — certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, apprenticeships and more — that recognize achievements and provide an accurate assessment of knowledge, skills and abilities.”
The more credentials that are accumulated and stacked, the more marketable the candidate presumably becomes.
The generic term for this, Mr. Pittinsky said in a recent telephone interview, is “credential innovation,” and while he, like many others in higher education, is bullish on the idea, he pointed to one important prerequisite for its success: cooperation. And in the historically and notoriously insular world of higher education, that’s not a given.
“This requires an unprecedented level of cooperation between colleges and universities with credential providers and industry associations and employers,” said Mr. Pittinsky, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and chief executive of Parchment, an educational technology company. “That is ultimately going to be the major pacing factor for this trend.”
“It’s a different way for those of us in academia to think,” agreed Dr. Horii, who is also president of the POD Network, a 1,400-member organization focused on improving higher education. “We’re used to looking at a degree as this large monolithic thing.”
Industry seems to be embracing the idea. “Increasing the digital skills of current employees is a critical component of many companies’ digital strategies, and mini-credentials are integral to that strategy,” said Brian Fitzgerald, chief executive of the Business-Higher Education Forum in Washington.
One school well known for its success in helping students compile a string of credits, particularly those from low-income communities, is Pasadena City College in California, through its acclaimed PCC Pathways, which Dr. Horri said “has been very successful with closing achievement gaps for students of color and speeding up time to graduate.”
The Pathways program helps students transition from high school to college, and with a number of “articulation” agreements in place with local four-year schools that recognize P.C.C. credits, the two-year college helps make transferring to the next rung on the academic ladder a smoother process.
That is how one former P.C.C. student, Anthony Lopez, began stacking the building blocks of his career.
Mr. Lopez and his younger brother were raised by a single mother in a tough neighborhood in Huntington Park, a city in southeastern Los Angeles County. He decided to attend P.C.C. after being rejected by eight schools. “It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made,” he said.
Originally interested in accounting, he took a class in the college’s Design Technology Pathway — a concentration that typically leads to an engineering degree. Mr. Lopez, now 21, found both the professor and the subject so inspiring that he switched his major. He earned a certificate in computer aided-design software and went on to earn two associate degrees from the college — in engineering and natural science.
Mr. Lopez is now a junior at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he hopes to earn his bachelor of science in mechanical engineering next year. After that, he said, “I plan on going to grad school for my master’s or Ph.D.”
There will also, no doubt, be additional certifications he might need. But, like Ms. Retas, he said he doesn’t have a grand strategy. “I’ve never looked at it as stacking my credentials,” Mr. Lopez said. “I’m looking at it as trying to get my family out of Huntington Park and into a better life.”