The menu at the Henderson, Nevada, diner where Amy Nelson likes to take a break from work is notable for its side dishes, including caramelized bananas, cinnamon apples, and mushrooms and onions. Each can feed an appetite in its own right. Together with an entrée, they add up to breakfast.

That’s much like the radically new way Nelson and a small number of other pioneering students have been experiencing college.

First they get a credential in a skill they need, then another, and another. Each can quickly pay off on its own by helping to get a job, raise, or promotion. Over time, they can add up to a bachelor’s degree.

“Even if I chose not to finish, I would still have these pieces and I’d say, ‘Look what I’ve done,’ as opposed to, ‘I have two years of college’” but nothing to show for it, said Nelson, who works as an information technology consultant and hopes to move into an administrative role.

The concept, known variously as “stackable credentials” or “microcredentials,” she said, “almost seemed too good to be true.”

That’s one reason it’s been painfully slow to take off: Consumers have trouble understanding it. Even after Nelson began the program in which she racks up microcredentials while on the path to a bachelor’s degree, she didn’t entirely get it. Then she started stacking up high-demand industry certifications in subjects such as technical support, cloud technology, and data analysis while on her way to a bachelor’s degree in data management.

“I don’t think it really dropped on me until I sat down to update my résumé,” she said. That’s when Nelson realized that those certifications had already increased her value on the job market.

Now the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic is giving microcredentials a burst of momentum. A lot of people will need more education to get back into the workforce, and they’ll need to get it quickly, at the lowest possible cost, and in subjects directly relevant to available jobs.

Nelson is enrolled in the stackable information technology bachelor’s program offered by Western Governors University. Enrollment in the program has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, to 10,711 in May, from 4,410 in March, the online nonprofit says. The number taking microcredential programs from edX, the online course provider created by MIT and Harvard that also offers a microcredential program, rose to 65,000 by the end of April, a 14-fold increase since early March.

“People are looking for shorter forms of learning during this time. They don’t know whether they have two months, three months. They’ve lost their jobs,” said Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX. The nonprofit had the fortuitous timing to launch a stackable program leading to a bachelor’s degree in computer science in January and three more in May—in writing, marketing, and data science. It also trademarked the term “MicroBachelors” to describe them.

“The ability to earn a microcredential within a few months and improve their potential to get hired as we come out of Covid becomes much more important,” Agarwal said.

Surveys bear this out. A third of people who have lost their jobs in the pandemic, or worry that they will, say they will need more education to get new ones, the nonprofit Strada Education Network found.

They don’t have time to waste. Among lower-income adults, who have already been disproportionately affected, one in four say they have only enough savings to cover their expenses for three months if they’re laid off or get sick, the Pew Research Center reports.

“They don’t have two to three years of runway to put a pause on their life,” said Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, where Nelson is enrolled. WGU has rolled out microcredential programs in states including Nevada that supply certificates and certifications on the way to degrees in information technology and health care.

Affordability Matters

Affordability matters, too, Pulsipher said; WGU’s IT microcredential program costs about $150 per credit and edX charges $166 per credit for its MicroBachelors degrees. That’s far less than the average $663 cost of a credit at conventional public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities, the US Department of Education says.

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