For busy professionals who are committed to keeping their skills relevant and actionable, stackable credentials offer a way to acquire knowledge progressively — earning short-term credentials to help fill immediate skill gaps while building a foundation for long-term success.
What Are Stackable Credentials?
Stackable credential pathways enable you to earn multiple credentials — such as a certificate and degree — by completing courses that meet overlapping requirements. These pathways offer an efficient, cost-effective way to acquire specialized knowledge and showcase your expertise. They also demonstrate your commitment to ongoing skill-building and professional development.
Stackability at Harvard Extension School
At Harvard Extension School (HES), courses, certificates, and degrees are designed to be stackable and customizable. “Our students are working professionals who have demanding schedules,” says Dr. Suzanne Spreadbury, dean of academic programs. “They are also high-achievers, with ambitious professional and educational goals. Our stackable certificates and degrees allow them to tailor their education to meet their short- and long-term plans.”
To help you consider your options, we outline sample pathways and offer advice and tips for successfully stacking credentials.
HES offers three graduate-level credentials, and many of them are designed to stack:
Graduate-Level Stackable Pathways
Microcertificates 2 courses
Graduate Certificates 3-5 courses
Master’s Degrees 10-12 courses
Stacking Microcertificates and Graduate Certificates
Our two-course microcertificates allow you to build knowledge in a niche topic in a year or less. Graduate certificates consist of four courses in an area of study, and they take two to three years to complete.
If you earn a two-course microcertificate, you can continue on to a related graduate certificate by taking two additional courses.
Stacking Certificates and Degrees
Master’s degree programs require a longer commitment, taking three to five years to complete. Stackable certificates can help you meet incremental goals along the way and maintain momentum.
“Earning a Harvard credential in a short amount of time while working toward a degree can help you gain a deeper understanding in a targeted area to advance professionally or even change careers,” says Jamie Gallo, assistant director of certificates.
If you are deciding between a graduate certificate and a master’s degree, stackable credentials offer the option to start with smaller goals in mind before making the leap to a degree program.
Here are two ways that stackable pathways can be designed:
Example 1: Microcertificate, Certificate, & Degree
A student with an interest in sustainability could:
- Begin with a two-course microcertificate in circular economics.
- Realizing their interest in learning more, they then complete two additional courses to earn a graduate certificate in corporate sustainability and innovation.
- Ultimately, they decide to pursue a master’s degree in sustainability, starting with the two courses for admission to the program.
- Upon admission to the program, they have completed six of their 12 degree courses (the four stackable certificate courses and two admission courses).
- If they include ENVR 210, they have completed five of 12 degree courses instead.
Example 2: Degree and Stackable Certificate
A student with a focus in management:
- Completes the three courses for admission to the management degree program.
- Upon admission to the program, they then select degree coursework that also applies toward the certificate in organizational behavior.
- One of the admission courses is organizational behavior, so the student can get started on the certificate courses even before admission!
Undergraduate-Level Stackable Pathways
The Bachelor of Liberal Arts Program includes several options for stackability, including four undergraduate certificates and a joint-degree program, which offers an accelerated path to a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
Advice and Tips for Designing Stackable Pathways
What if I want to start with only one course as I consider my options?
Starting with a single course is a practical way to explore whether a particular degree or certificate will be the right fit for you. To get the most mileage out of your course, we suggest you conduct thorough research to make sure you’re starting with a course that counts toward both your microcertificate or graduate certificate of choice and the master’s degree you may be interested in later.
For example, if you are interested in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology master’s degree, and decide to start with IORP 1501 Industrial Organizational Psychology, this course not only meets an ALM admission requirement, but also counts toward graduate certificates in the areas of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Leadership; Topics in Human Behavior; Strategic Management; and Organizational Behavior.
Can I start with a certificate first, then move on to the related master’s degree?
While this is a viable pathway, students need to be aware of course completion timelines.
You have three years to complete your certificate. For example, if you take your first certificate course in Fall 2023, you must complete your final certificate course no later than August 2026.
For admission into a degree program, courses more than five years old at the point of admission will not count toward the degree.
Please see the specific requirements of completing your chosen master’s degree for more information.
How do I select courses to fulfill the requirements for both a degree and certificate?
When you are comparing requirements, we recommend that you look at the information side by side, such as the certificate and degree search opened in two separate tabs online. Because the degree course search will show all the classes that stack toward a certificate on the degree page under “stackable certificates,” but does not show how the courses stack, having two searches available can be helpful.
Students are also welcome to reach out to the Certificates Office, the Office of Predegree Advising & Admissions (for prospective degree candidates), and the ALB or ALM degree program offices (for admitted degree candidates) for assistance and confirmation.
If I pursue a certificate first, will that help me gain admission to the master’s program? Do degree admission courses count toward a certificate?
Our “earn your way in” admission philosophy exists independent of students’ earned or intended certificate credentials at HES. Students’ admission to degree programs is based largely on the grades they receive in their degree-applicable courses at HES.
If those courses happen to include ones that count toward a certificate as well, which is often the case, then those courses and grades will count toward admission. But it won’t make an applicant more qualified for admission than anyone else if they’ve earned a certificate before applying to an HES degree program.
Before applying, be sure to confirm your degree admission eligibility early!
Is stacking credentials difficult?
HES prioritizes flexibility and accessibility to make it as easy as possible for admitted degree students to earn multiple credentials together, in a way that works best for them.
Academic advisors are available to help students achieve their goals, so setting up regular check-ins can be valuable.
It is especially critical for degree candidates requesting to earn more than one graduate certificate to work with their advisor to ensure they are completing degree requirements, while earning the certificates within the required timelines of both credentials.
It is also important to note that any given requirement may only count toward one graduate or undergraduate certificate in addition to a master’s degree; students may not apply any one course to multiple graduate certificates.
How can I find support?
Our teams are on hand to help all students achieve their goals. For questions or assistance, contact our Enrollment Services team at Inquiry@Extension.Harvard.edu or (617) 495-4024, Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Eastern time. Visit this page to learn how to connect virtually or in person.