4 Reasons Why EQUIP Is A Big Deal

A Department of Education experiment.

October 21, 2015

Have you been following the Department of Education (ED) announcement about EQUIP?  (Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships). 

(See Paul Fain's 10/14/15 story - A New Route to Student Aid).  

This new program, under the authority of the Department’s Experimental Sites Initiative, will allow a limited number of partner post-secondary institutions and non-traditional educational providers access to Title IV student aid.

What this experiment does is waive the rules (for a small number of test sites) where schools are limited from using more than 50% of content or instruction from another entity. 

The goal of this experimental program is to allow traditional schools to lower educational costs and increase access by partnering with nontraditional providers, such as MOOCs or code academies or boot camps, by creating hybrid programs that are eligible for enrolled students to access financial aid. 

Why is this experimental program potentially such a big deal? 

1.  EQUIP Can Provide Access to High-Quality Alternative Education Providers: 

One of the fastest growing segments of the education market are courses programs that that are not eligible for financial aid. Boot camps, code academies, and MOOCs can provide both quality content and applied training, but they do so outside of the existing public funding support mechanisms of traditional higher education.  

Badges and verified certificates from a boot camp or a MOOC provider are increasingly recognized by employers as evidence of mastery, but all the burden of paying for these alternative credentials falls on the students. Unsurprisingly, we have seen that most of the students enrolled in these programs are those who can afford to pay on their own. 

EQUIP is experimenting with giving limited amounts of financial aid to students who enroll in these programs. It will incent the growth and development of high-quality alternative educational providers.  

And because the Department signaled that it intends to select programs that provide a good value—especially those that are low-cost—it will encourage a focus on both ROI and affordability 

2.  EQUIP May Energize Collaboration Across the Postsecondary Provider Ecosystem:

While there are many examples of collaborations between traditional schools and nontraditional education providers, there are barriers to creating innovative learning programs that respond to student needs.

For instance, it may be possible to accelerate student progress towards a degree and lower overall student educational costs if some foundational or specialized skills can be gained through nontraditional platforms such as open online education.  

Currently, the ability of schools to incorporate these nontraditional methods into a program that leads to a degree is limited by the 50% rule. 

Any program that increases options and lowers costs for students is clearly worth supporting.  

The fact that financial aid dollars are tied to partnerships between traditional schools (with brands to protect) and nontraditional providers should ensure that quality is maintained and that program success is rigidly evaluated.  

What is also true is that EQUIP will be good for traditional colleges and universities, as they will be exposed to new thinking and new methods as they engage in partnerships with nontraditional education providers.  

Shaking up longstanding assumptions about how education should be created and delivered is a good thing for our colleges and universities.  Bringing standards of quality control and scrutiny that come with access to Title IV funding will be a good thing for the nontraditional education providers. 

3.  EQUIP Will Bring Increased Innovation to Quality Assurance and Accelerate the Separation of Learning From Assessment: 

The focus of the EQUIP program on innovative approaches to quality assurance is a key part of the program. Each partnership between colleges and educational providers will be required to include a “quality assurance entity” that will do an outcomes-focused review of the educational quality. 

This is important, because the Department is signaling its interest in shifting the conversation about quality from one where inputs are most important (like the current accreditation system) to one where student outcomes are valued.  

A major part of outcomes-based quality assurance is also one of the big trends in postsecondary education over the next decade: separating learning from assessment.  

Increasingly, a student may learn a body of knowledge through an open online resource, but is then assessed on their mastery by a traditional institution.  (Using the same assessment mechanisms that enrolled students in traditional programs utilize to show that they have learned the material).  

This is how traditional schools will be able to offer credit for the successful completion, and then subsequent assessment, for open online courses.  

What EQUIP will do is enable those schools already partnering with open online education providers to offer students an alternative path for credit to offer financial aid that helps defer the costs of those credits.  

Today, a student in a program that allows completion of open online education activities to be used to progress towards a degree must fund those open online education activities themselves. For students enrolled in schools in the EQUIP program, those alternative (open online education) activities will be treated just like traditional courses - in that they will be eligible for financial aid. 

4.  EQUIP Type Programs Will Be One Way That Open Online Education Becomes Financially Sustainable: 

Models of financial sustainability for open online education providers have been elusive.  

It turns out that MOOC providers are not good at job placement. It is also true that while providing verified certificates can cover some of the costs associated with creating a MOOC, the ability of this funding mechanism to cover all costs is restricted to only a few areas of specialization.  

I think that open online education will get to sustainability, but that finding a way to cover MOOC production costs will always involve multiple and varied funding strategies. There is not a one-size-fits all approach to making MOOCs sustainable.   

The EQUIP experiment, if it proves successful and if it expands to cover many more schools and partnerships, is another way that open online education can pay for itself.  

Access to financial aid dollars will encourage schools to partner with MOOC providers to develop open online courses.  Access to financial aid dollars will also provide strong incentives for some schools to give academic credit for MOOCs, and to incorporate open online education a part of the pathway to a degree.   

What do you see as the risks to both schools and students in this EQUIP experiment? 

Will schools participating in this program be able to adequately assess the quality of educational services and materials that students will be getting from their nontraditional partners? 

If programs like EQUIP move from small experiments with a few colleges and universities to standard practices, what will this mean for the future of traditional postsecondary institutions? 

Do you also think that this EQUIP announcement is a very big deal? 



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