Stackable Education

Web­ster University’s George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology in St. Louis, Missouri, is debuting three “stack­able” certificates in change management that can be combined to allow a student to earn a master’s degree. 

Today’s busy executives are showing more interest in just-in-time education to help them learn the new skills they need, precisely when they need them. But many students also are hoping to build a series of courses into a marketable degree. Web­ster University’s George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology in St. Louis, Missouri, is debuting three “stack­able” certificates in change management that can be combined to allow a student to earn a master’s degree. The programs are launching this fall and also will be available online in spring 2016.

The first certificate focuses on the foundations of change management, the second on team building and communica­tions, and the third on facilitating break­through change and leading change in a global context. Together, the programs total 37 hours. While the first two may be taken in either order, students must complete both of them before enrolling in the third course, which also requires a capstone project. Stu­dents who plan to earn all three certificates can enroll in the master’s degree program.

Administrators believe the stackable courses will attract middle managers who want training in change leadership but question the time and financial invest­ment required to obtain a master’s degree. “This format allows us to break down the education process into small blocks, as well as speed up the process from conception of curriculum to delivery,” says Barrett Bae­bler, associate professor and chair of the management department. “It also allows the university to specialize the curriculum and allows students to individualize their education.”

Officials hope that about 50 percent of students who take one certificate course will decide to complete all three. However, Baebler notes that they expect a large number of students to use one of the first two certificates to customize other mas­ter’s degrees, which might reduce the num­ber of students who opt to earn all three.

The goal is to enroll 15 students in the first certificate class for the fall of 2015, says Jeff Haldeman, associate profes­sor of management and director of the change leadership program. He notes that even if just half of them elect to earn their master’s degrees in change management, the school still will have enough students to run the classes effectively. “Our biggest challenge will be to accelerate enrollments during the pilot year,” he adds.

Haldeman hopes that Webster even­tually will be able to brand its certificates as competitive alternatives to the change management certificate offered by benchmarking organization Prosci. If the certificate program goes well—that is, if it grows enough to require multiple entry points throughout the year and expands to all of Webster’s campuses—the school might present stackable courses in other knowledge areas. These could include technology, leadership, strategy, project management, nonprofit management, and even the MBA.

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Barrett Baebler and Jeff Haldeman of Webster University offer these words of advice to schools that are considering adding stackable certificates to their program portfolios:


  • Research which topic areas will generate the most demand.
  • Think about certificates within the context of all of your graduate offerings.
  • Look for ways to market certificates as electives in your existing high-demand master’s programs.
  • Make sure there is no overlap with existing courses and that there is adequate differentiation of content so that you can target specific markets.
  • Create faculty learning communities to better integrate the curriculum within individual certificates.

Baebler and Haldeman warn that developing a set of stackable certificates is not just a matter of “arranging four three-credit-hour courses together” or allowing students to combine random courses together to earn a degree. Rather, business schools must first be sure there’s a common thread or linkage among all the elements. Then, given that different students will take different paths to achieve their goals within stackable formats, it’s important to consider how to assess each individual’s progress through the certificates toward a completed master’s degree.