Stackable education lets Utah students take on job training, degrees ‘one bite at a time’
Rosario Cerón doesn’t have a lot of time to herself. When the 42-year-old mother of two isn’t at work, she’s home — logging onto class from her kitchen table.
The course she’s taking now — Math 1030, Quantitative Reasoning – is not her favorite, but she figures it will come in handy one day.
“That’s my kind of thinking in life,” Cerón said. “It seems like you don’t need it now but later you will and you’ll see the reason why”
Cerón came to Utah more than 20 years ago from Mexico. The initial plan was to return to attend college. But she fell in love in the mountains and with the man who would become her husband.
They started a family here in Utah. She helped out by working odd jobs but never gave up her college dream.
“It was something I wanted for myself, to be proud of myself that I have some career,” she said.
What got Cerón back in school wasn’t general education classes like math or English. She started with a job training certificate in commercial foods from Salt Lake Community College. It felt more doable than a degree. The schedule was flexible and designed to take about a year to complete.
As she was finishing the program in 2019, she was told a new pathway at SLCC had opened up, one that would allow her to transfer into an associate’s degree in culinary arts.
She figured since her certificate would count for about half of the credits she’d need, she might as well go for it.
Things did get harder. She had to start taking those general education courses and stick to a more traditional schedule. But after three years, she finished it and landed a new job as the manager of a restaurant.
This summer, she began working on her second associate’s in hospitality management and might keep going for a bachelor’s after that.
“The more that you’re advancing, it kind of makes you think, ‘I want more,’” she said. “We’re human like that, you’re getting close to your goal and it’s, ‘I want more.’”
A Solution To A Widespread Problem
Cerón’s path is a rare, but promising success in higher education. While a college degree is often touted as the way to get ahead — a ticket to the middle class — for many college hopefuls, knocking out all those classes at once can feel daunting.
It’s one reason why more states and universities around the country are trying to give students the option to transfer — or “stack” — short-term job training into a degree.
Shalin Jyotishi, a higher education researcher and fellow at New America, said it’s the best of both worlds. Because while job training options are growing and can help get someone hired fast, they can’t match a degree when it comes to economic mobility.
“I truly believe that the wisest way to go is to give students the opportunity of choice,” he said. “That's what stackability allows.”
The concept has been around for years. But in reality, Jyotishi said it often doesn’t work. One of the main issues is that few colleges are willing or know how to convert job training into academic credit.
Losing credits is a major barrier for community college students when transferring to a university. While roughly 80% say they want a bachelor’s degree, only about 16% end up getting one after six years, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.
The data is less clear, though, for students like Cerón moving from technical colleges or non-credit programs to universities.
For now, the only statewide data in Utah comes from a 2020 report, which found that about 10% of technical college students — 9,747 students — transferred to a state college or university between 2011 and 2019. But it did not examine how many stacked their certificate into a degree nor how many actually went on to earn a degree of any kind.
Jyotishi said most colleges are not set up to track that information, nor are they funded by state governments to do so.
“The system in which we organize and track students is so fragmented,” he said. “It should be no surprise at all that it's very rare for a student to get a non-credit credential and then convert it into [degree] credit.”
Utah has been inching toward a correction. In 2020, lawmakers created the Utah System of Higher Education, combining what had been separate governing bodies overseeing the state’s technical colleges and universities. One of the intended goals was to create “seamless” transfer pathways between the two.
To get there, USHE has required technical colleges to start offering academic credit, funded grants to expand stackable programs in growth industries and hired five new positions to start tracking the options that already exist.
The statewide vision still has a long way to go. In the meantime, it’s mostly up to students to verify if and how they are able to get credit, sifting through a patchwork of options that only exist in certain regions and program areas.
“I think it'll take time to have that cultural change,” said Jessica Slater, chair of the automotive program at Weber State University. “There's some competition [among universities] there. We're trying to dissolve that.”
Slater’s program is one that is designed to stack. It offers up to a bachelor’s degree in automotive technology, plus two associate degrees, three certificates and even a week-long upskilling boot camp.
Slater said students can start in high school, earning credit toward a certificate in automotive technology. They can transfer from a technical college to start on their associate’s and continue on to a bachelor’s. All students have to do to keep going is register for classes.
“I've tried to lay it out where things do truly stack and that you can come and go depending on what your life has in store for you,” she said.
While about 70% of all students in the program end up getting a bachelor's degree, Slater said those who don’t will probably need to come back at some point. Car repair usually becomes too difficult physically as technicians age or they’ll reach a salary cap they can’t surpass without more training.
That’s where the bachelor’s degree comes in, she said. It opens the most doors for students, into management positions or higher-level technical specialties.
“I have students that will say, ‘I just want to be a tech,’” she said. “I'll hear from them a few years later because they've gotten married, they've started a little family, and so they're coming back to school to change their position in industry.”
Making Stackable Work
The stackable model is relatively common across Weber State, according to Slater. It’s one result of the school’s history, evolving over the years from a community college, vocational school and, finally, a university.
For a research institution like Utah State, stackability is still a new concept. Until recently, students who wanted to transfer from a technical college had almost no way of getting credit toward a degree, according to aviation department head Bruce Miller.
That began to change after 2010, Miller said, when Utah State merged with what had been a vocational school, the College of Eastern Utah. Suddenly, USU had job training programs right alongside academic ones.
That got Miller and others thinking about how to grant credit for those programs. They opted to create a new degree, the Bachelor of Science in Technology Systems — a sort of general studies degree, but with emphasis areas in things like cybersecurity and robotics automation.
It was a “first step” toward combining technical training with university academics, he said, while also providing an avenue for students who might not otherwise consider getting a degree.
“This type of technical training and being allowed to cross into the academic world opens up some really lucrative and useful paths for students,” he said.
Building on Success
Early success stories like Gary Earl’s, a student who graduated at 50 years old, have caught the attention of other faculty at USU. They’re now looking into creating new stackable degrees in the life sciences and business.
After years working as a maintenance technician, a severe health issue forced Earl into early retirement. He discovered USU’s program in his 40s, which he tackled alongside an automated manufacturing certificate from Bridgerland Technical College. The experience helped him land a new job as an automation engineer for Autoliv, a car safety equipment manufacturer.
He now programs and controls the robots that build the equipment, a job uniquely tailored to his lifelong interest in science fiction. It also pays more than he’s ever made before.
“They talk about eating an elephant one bite at a time, it's kind of the same deal,” Earl said. “Instead of rushing through four years of college and then finding out, ’Well, that's not really what I wanted to do,’ the stackable credits just make more sense because you get the experience and you start seeing what it actually entails.“
It took Earl about six years to finish the program, which Miller said is a bit faster than most. Many finish in about eight to 10 years, he said. That's because nearly all students work while attending and typically start out just wanting an associate’s degree.
A full bachelor’s may still be a daunting prospect for future students, but indications so far have shown Miller that the model can work.
“You recognize early on that this isn't the path for every student,” he said. “Some students want their technical training and that's what they want. The beauty is that there's entry and exit points all along the path. And that's really what I think is the ‘aha’ moment, when it can get fully developed and you can start seeing students succeed.”
This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship. The Fellowship supports reporting on career and technical education. It is administered by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars and funded by the ECMC Foundation.