stacked building blocks

Stackable and Concurrent Qualifications for Lifelong Learning

Posted December 15, 2017 by Tom Robinson - President and CEO - AACSB International

There has been a buzz in the educational community in recent years about “stackable credentials.” These might involve taking a selection of classes that can stack together to achieve a certificate, piecing together certificate programs to achieve an associate’s degree, or acquiring a sufficient number of badges to qualify for a particular job. You might be mixing and matching different types of programs from different types of providers.

Stacking of educational credentials is not really new, though, and often includes higher-level degrees and professional certifications. Master’s degrees stack on top of undergraduate degrees. I earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and stacked a Master of Accountancy degree on top of it along with work experience to earn my Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license (in many jurisdictions you must have the equivalent of a master’s degree and minimum number of hours in accounting to sit for the CPA examinations). I continue to stack this education through lifelong learning. To maintain my CPA license in the state of Ohio, I must complete 120 hours of continuing education every three years through courses and providers approved by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA).

Lifelong learning and the stacking of credentials, degrees, and other qualifications is becoming more important and more prevalent. The rapid pace of change in technology and business leads to changes in the nature of work, creating new jobs and even new professions. All of us must continue to update ourselves, just like technology itself does, and stack new education on top of the building blocks of the education we have achieved in the past. Some jurisdictions are experimenting with cumulative transcripts that could potentially be used to show that an individual is qualified for certain job roles.

For example, in the U.K. there is a National Qualifications Framework overseen by Ofqual. In this framework, degrees and certifications are evaluated to determine their level (ranging from entry level to level 8, which includes doctoral degrees). Also in the U.K., a master’s degree and some professional designations like the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) are both rated at level 7. Either can be used by an individual or their employer to show competence to work in a particular job role. The U.K. is creating an Individualized Learning Record to monitor how funds from educational funding schemes are implemented. Such a record could conceivably be used in the future as a cumulative transcript to show how one’s past education on a cumulative basis qualified them for a particular position. National Qualification Frameworks also exist in other countries, notably Australia, South Africa, India, New Zealand, and Singapore, to name a few.

As discussed in a prior posting, the concept of lifelong learning has become critical for practitioners to stay up to date with rapid changes in business and technology. We need to spend more time thinking about how cumulative learning and experience can be used to demonstrate competence. We are already seeing a trend in which degrees are being combined with professional designations to create alternative pathways to qualification. Here are a few examples:

Financial Services Qualifications

There are a variety of ways an individual can show they are qualified to provide financial planning or investment advice. This might be a degree in wealth management or investing or a professional designation, or both. In 23 countries an individual can earn a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) designation by showing completion of an educational program (usually a bachelor’s degree with specified financial planning coursework), passing a national examination, demonstrating qualifying work experience, and adhering to a code of ethics. All of these elements effectively stack to earn the designation. Further, maintaining the CFP® designation requires that holders engage in continuing education and report the courses completed to the CFP Board every two years.

Another example is the CFA designation, which is a global program that requires individuals to have a bachelor’s degree and then pass a series of three examinations over about four years. The degree and exams stack to earn the designation, as shown in Figure 1. The CFA Institute also offers a more specialized program called a Certificate in Investment Performance Measurement (CIPM). This designation can be earned through two different stacking paths as depicted in the below figure.

Stackable Qualifications Infographic

Degree Programs

We have also seen stacking work in the other direction. Some Master’s in Finance programs allow applicants to use achievement of the CFA designation (or passing CFA Level 1) in lieu of an entrance examination such as GMAT®. Other graduate programs will sometimes waive some course credits for students entering with such professional designations. And some programs provide learners with the ability to earn a degree and professional designation concurrently. For example, hundreds of business schools have aligned their curriculum with professional designations like the CFP® and CFA so that a student can prepare for those programs while earning a degree. Some are fully integrated, such as at the Goodman Institute of Investment Management at Concordia University, which has a three-year program that fully integrates the CFA program curriculum with an MBA.

Further, recent years have shown a large increase in specialized master’s degree programs in business subjects—especially relative to generalist programs, notably the MBA. For example, over the past five years, in a matched sample of AACSB-accredited business programs globally, specialized master’s enrollments were up 30 percent (versus an increase of 3 percent in MBA enrollments). As noted in my previous lifelong learning post, this increase is to be expected, given the deep knowledge needed early in one’s career in a complex environment.

Going forward, these individuals will need additional education in management and leadership as they progress in their careers. They will need programs that stack on top of their specialized master’s, such as executive education programs, professional development programs, or other degree programs. I think it is only a matter of time until we see MBA programs that stack upon an individual’s specialized master’s (and/or professional designations) to provide the incremental learning needed.

Parting Thoughts

We can no longer think of learning as one-off degrees or other qualifications. Business schools and training and development executives need to think about learning as cumulative over one’s career and provide lifelong learning programs that fit together or stack to keep an individual up to date in a complex, dynamic, and competitive business environment. It is important for business schools, certifying organizations, and employers to work closer together to create and maintain complementary programs.