Stackable credentials are short courses that work both as certificates and as building blocks towards a degree. They’re affordable and can boost your resume almost instantly.

I’ve been thinking about getting a master’s in digital marketing for a while now. You know, to supplement my skills, take my career to the next level, and all that.

But as much as I would like to dive into it, I don’t feel like I have enough time to commit to a full-time program right now, nor am I in a position to afford all of the tuition costs.

However, I recently came across something called stackable credentials, which appear to tackle all of these issues by breaking traditional programs into smaller units that can be combined to get a degree. 

What are stackable credentials?

What are stackable credentials?Stackable credentials essentially break large degree programs, such as an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree, into smaller learning units. You can usually finish these units within a few weeks — or even a few hours, depending on the course.

Anant Agarwal, the founder and CEO of edX, an online platform that hosts open courses, says that you should think about these credentials like

“the Lego blocks of education that can be used to unlock career advancement and higher-paying jobs.”

For each course you complete or skills you learn, you get a certificate or a badge, which you can use to beef up your resume. This means that you don’t have to wait two or four years to reap the benefits of what you’ve learned, career-wise. 

But the real beauty of stackable credentials lies in the fact that you can either stop once you get these certificates, or you can “stack” them together to get a degree. 

Why go for stackable credentials instead of a traditional degree?

So you’re probably wondering why you should even bother to stack credentials when you can just enroll in a regular part-time program to get a degree, right?

Well, technically you could.

However, stacking offers a unique set of benefits that are hard to get when you go down the traditional route.

You can start at any time

Because most stackable credentials are 100% online and asynchronous (aka consisting of pre-recorded classes), most of them are open for enrollment all year long, so you don’t have to wait for the next semester or quarter to get started.

They are widely available

Stackable credentials are also widely available. You can find them virtually anywhere, including community colleges, both private and public universities, and even online platforms, like edX and Coursera.

No prior knowledge is required to enroll

No prior knowledge is required to enroll in most of these courses, so you won’t have to pass a pesky standardized test or be subject to eligibility requirements to get started. To enroll, you just need to be willing to learn.

They’re cheaper than traditional college credits

Stackable credentials have a “pay-as-you-go” billing structure, and credits usually cost between $100 and $200, according to Agarwal, from edX — that’s considerably lower than the national average cost per undergraduate credit, which is $594.

Since not everyone needs a full college degree to land the job of their dreams, this means you can get the skills you need, and save thousands of dollars down the line by choosing these certificates instead of a traditional college program.

Read more: College Vs. Trade School – Which One Is Right For You?

You can gain a complete set of skills in a short period of time

One of the best parts about stackable credentials is that they don’t require a huge time commitment.

For example, you can get a MicroBachelors in Marketing Essentials from Doane University on edX in as little as three months. This course only requires you to spend about seven to nine hours per week on your studies.

This also means that you can start applying what you learn right away, and improve your job prospects as you go, instead of waiting two or four years to advance your career.

They may substitute standardized tests

If you’re interested in pursuing a graduate program down the line, some universities will waive the GRE or GMAT test requirements for students who successfully complete a series of stackable credentials, plus you gain a set of skills you can use right away.

So, it’s a win-win.

How stackable credentials work

There are three ways to stack:

  • Vertical.
  • Horizontal.
  • Value-added.

Each of these strategies is designed with a different goal in mind.


Vertical is the classic way to stack. With vertical stacking, you’re essentially leveling up as you go.

In other words, each course and certificate you complete brings you closer to getting an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree — or even all three if you follow a certain sequence. 

This type of stacking is ideal for those who have some college credits — or none at all — and want to get a degree, while simultaneously advancing their careers.


Horizontal stacking is all about building your expertise in a certain subject. Unlike vertical stacking, horizontal stacking doesn’t require you to complete the courses in a particular order, nor are they organized by levels

This strategy is heavily used by those working in technology since they can get certified in specific areas, like data privacy and cloud security, to further expand their careers as systems administrators, for example.


Value-added stacking is a combination of both vertical and horizontal stacking. This form of stacking basically involves both getting a degree and a certificate in a certain subject, with the goal of graduating ready to perform a specific job.

An example of this would be getting a certificate in project management or business analysis to supplement a business administration degree, with the goal of working as a project manager or as a business analyst. 

Who are stackable degrees right for?

Those who are too busy to dedicate themselves to the traditional college experience

According to the Higher Learning Advocates’ latest data, which is a non-profit organization that advocates for student success beyond high school, 37% of all college students are adults over the age of 25, while 24% of them are parents.

This means that they may not have the “linear” or straightforward path to a degree that younger students with fewer responsibilities have. So, for those students who have to juggle school, work, and other family obligations, stackable credentials may be very well worth it, as they’re more flexible than standard degrees.

Read more: Are Online Degrees Ever Worth It?

Those seeking a career-focused certificate in an in-demand field

Agarwal, from edX, says that stackable degrees are particularly suited for people who want a career-focused certificate to launch or advance their career in an in-demand field, like business, and health care, for example.

Those who want to avoid a degree altogether

Stackable credentials may also be the right solution for those who have not yet completed a degree and want to gain valuable skills and knowledge they can use to further their careers in a short period of time.

Is stacking really worth it?

Is stacking really worth it?A recent paper by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute also found that adults who complete stackable credentials are 4% more likely to be employed than “non-stackers,” and experience an average salary increase of 7% after completing the courses.

The paper also notes that those who stacked courses in health and business experienced higher wage increases compared to other fields, with an average quarterly increase of $640 and $760, respectively.

So, yeah, stacking does pay off.

Challenges to consider

Yes, there are many pros to stacking, but there are also a few challenges you should be aware of before you commit to stacking credentials.

Here are the most important ones.

You’ll need to be very disciplined

Most of these courses are self-paced, or asynchronous, which means you’ll need to have a lot of determination and discipline to be able to complete them successfully.

Jon Harbor, provost at Purdue Global, says that some courses do have access to tutoring and frequent interactions with faculty, but still, you’ll need to be very proactive about your learning.

There aren’t as many fields to choose from

If you do a quick Google search, you’ll see that most of these credentials are available for in-demand fields, like tech, business, science, engineering, and health.

So, if you’re interested in something more niche, it’s possible that you’ll have a harder time finding courses.

Getting financial aid can be challenging

Harbor says that if the credential you’re getting is part of a degree-granting program, then you may be able to apply for federal student aid, such as student loans.

However, these credentials are usually evaluated on a case-by-case basis, when it comes to financial aid, so you’ll have to check with the institution first to see your options.

It can be tricky to transfer credits to a non-partner institution

If you take a credential at an institution and want to transfer those credits somewhere else, Harbor says it’s up to the school to decide whether they’ll accept those credits, so that’s something to consider before you enroll.


Stackable credentials are an affordable and flexible way to acquire the knowledge and skills you need to advance your career in a short time.

Although they can’t replace a traditional college degree, they can make it easier for you to get one by allowing you to learn one step at a time.

Read more:

Related Tools

About the author

Heidi Rivera
Total Articles: 33
Heidi Rivera is a Puerto Rico-based personal finance reporter. Her areas of expertise include credit, student debt, and higher education. Heidi’s work has been featured on Money, Yahoo, MSN Money, and Money Talks News. When she isn’t writing, Heidi likes to watch horror movies, enjoy a slice (or four) of pizza while sipping on some wine, or chilling at home with her cats. You can reach her on Twitter @_HRivera or on LinkedIn.