Connections: The Newsletter of the National Career Pathways Network

Volume 30, No. 3
Learning and Earning with Stackable Credentials

A Case Study in Stackable Credentials: Emergency Medical Services Career Pathways at Mitchell Community College

Camille Reese, Vice President, Instruction, Mitchell Community College

Today more and more community and technical colleges are embedding “stackable” certificates within their associate degree programs. This approach provides a practical way to help students progress along the education continuum while earning marketable credentials. As they complete these industry-aligned credentials, learners can secure entry-level employment while continuing education part-time, or they can work full-time and resume their education when they’re ready to pursue the next credential.

This article describes how this approach is being implemented in the Emergency Medical Services program at Mitchell Community College, one of 58 community colleges in the North Carolina Community College System.

Mitchell Community College logo

Mitchell offers a wide variety of both continuing education (non-credit) and curriculum (credit-bearing) programs. Like many other community colleges, they have experienced declining enrollment for the past several years. This has challenged them to take a hard look at the way they serve their students and meet the workforce needs of business and industry and the community at large.

Mitchell assessed how they provide programming, award credit, and incorporate industry-recognized certifications in their programs. The main goal of the project was to explore strategies for converting non-credit certificate programs to credit-bearing stackable credentials leading to associate degrees. Through the project, they have been able to transform the way they value credit and non-credit at the college and have begun to recognize the impact that each has on students and careers.

Career Pathways in Emergency Medical Services—At Mitchell, EMS has been offered for many years as a non-credit program composed of two primary paths: EMT and paramedic. The EMT path is completed in one 16-week semester and consists of 200 hours (classroom, lab, and 24 hours of clinical experience). The paramedic path is completed in 14 weeks and consists of 1000 hours (460 classroom hours, 200 lab hours, 100 clinical hours, and 240 hours of field experiences). Students who complete those paths are eligible to sit for the North Carolina EMT and paramedic exams and become credentialed. However, students who completed the program were not able to move forward in their careers because they had not earned academic degrees. Moreover, if they wanted to continue with their education and earn associate or bachelor’s degrees, the credit earned through this program did not articulate. Since EMS providers now seek degreed paramedics to lead their organizations, this limited the graduates’ career mobility.

Accumulation of Credits and Credit Transfer—A plan was put in place to develop a credit-bearing EMS program that would enable noncredit completers to be awarded credit for meeting specific outcomes and competencies that had been built into the non-credit course. The college created a bridge program that would facilitate the articulation of the non-credit courses to curriculum credit. Through this process they have developed the following program options:

  • Career and College Promise, a pathway designed for dual-enrolled high school students;
  • Emergency Medical Science Bridging Option, for completers of the non-credit credential; and
  • A traditional two-year Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree in emergency medical science.

The Career and College Promise (CCP) pathway enables high school students to earn college credit. Participating students have both college transfer and career and technical education (CTE) options. The EMS pathway allows high school seniors to enroll in an EMT course the college offers on the campus of a high school that is dedicated to CTE. Students who complete the course are eligible to become certified EMTs. The high school students also take additional courses that can be articulated from the high school to the college. Students who complete all courses earn academic certificates from the college. These courses are part of the EMS degree, allowing students to stack the credentials.

Accommodation of Working Adults—The EMS Bridging Option is designed to allow a certified, non-degreed paramedic to earn an AAS degree in EMS by completing course requirements identified outside of the paramedic subject area. This program gives the student an opportunity to enhance learning already achieved through non-credit certification courses for paramedics. Coursework includes medical terminology, general education courses, and anatomy and physiology. Currently, when graduates of the non-credit paramedic program enroll in the credit-bearing AAS Emergency Medical Science degree, they receive 42 articulated credits and need fewer than 30 credits to complete the EMS Bridging Option.

The EMS curriculum provides the knowledge, skills, and attributes necessary to provide advanced medical care as paramedics for critical and emergent patients. Students gain complex knowledge, competency, and experience while employing evidence-based practice under medical oversight and serving as links between medical emergency scenes and the healthcare system.

Results—The college has seen great success with this program. The curriculum of the EMS program was offered for the first time in fall 2017. Since its inception, 16 students who had already completed the non-credit program, enrolled in the bridging option, and completed the general education requirements for the AAS in EMS were awarded degrees. Thirty CCP students have completed the pathway and another 21 are currently enrolled (fall 2020). Approximately 75 percent of students who successfully take the EMS course go on to earn their certification at the state level.

This creative articulation option has positively impacted many students. Comments from students include the following:

I never thought, when I entered the world of EMS that it would take me to my Associate Degree. I never thought I would ever get any degree … yet here I am. Next step … Bachelor of Science. Then on to PA school! M.R., Paramedic, AAS, Level II EMS Instructor

This was an accomplishment that I never saw myself completing; a goal I never thought I would achieve. D. A., Paramedic, AAS, Level I EMS Instructor

I never dreamed I could to get my degree when I was already 20 years into my career as a Paramedic. M.H., Paramedic, AAS, Level II EMS Instructor

Transition to Associate Degree Nursing—The college has offered an Associate Degree Nursing Program since 1984. The program is approved by the North Carolina Board of Nursing and accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). In fall semester 2019, the college admitted the first cohort for the Paramedic to Associate Degree Nursing option. This competitive admission program has many of the same admission requirements as the generic Associate Degree Nursing Program and includes a valid, unrestricted North Carolina Paramedic Certification or National Registry Paramedic Certification. Once admitted, students must successfully complete the Paramedic to RN Bridge Concepts Course with a grade of B or better. If successful, the student can complete the concept-based Associate Degree Nursing Program in three additional semesters. Upon approval, there was great interest in this option. Of the 15 students accepted into the program, 12 enrolled. Student retention is good, with 11 of those students continuing to the senior level. Upon successful completion of the program in May 2021, those students will be eligible to write the NCLEX-RN. The college will admit the next cohort in spring semester 2021.

Student comments regarding the AAS Paramedic/ADN Program are positive. One student summed up the program this way:

This program allows for Paramedics to move in new directions in healthcare, opening up new opportunities for their careers. This is a much needed program! S.E., Paramedic, AAS

For more information, contact the author at