5 Reasons to Like EQUIP

Why we should celebrate this Education Department experiment.

August 28, 2016

Have you been following the news about the Education Department’s announcement about the EQUIP experiment?

If you missed this announcement, go ahead and read Paul Fain’s 8/17/16 story Quality and Noncollege Learning. You can also check out the White House blog post about the announcement: Testing Access for Low-Income Students to a New Generation of Higher Education Providers. And even scan the Education Department Fact Sheet on the program.

EQUIP (Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships) is an experiment to allow students access to federal financial aid to pay for a limited number educational and  career focused programs that are designed in collaboration with accredited higher ed providers and non-accredited educational organizations (including for-profit entities). 

The providers of the 8 educational programs in the experiment consist of a partnership between a school (such as Dallas Community College -which will provide access to associate's degrees), a non-traditional provider (such as StraighterLine), and a quality assurance entity (QAE - such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation). 

The program small -- limited to about $5 million in potential grants and $12 million in loans -- as the total pie of financial aid that the federal government provides annually is ~$150 billion. (Although most of that funding is in the form of loans).

My agenda is to try and convince you that: a. You should care about EQUIP., and b. You should spend some energy / capital talking positively about EQUIP to your network.

In reading the comments to Fain’s 8/17 article, I was struck by the critical nature of some of the responses. Yes - we higher ed people are critical by nature - and our IHE community is particularly quick to push back on anything that smells like the conventional wisdom. And yes, the people who choose to comment on IHE tend to have stronger views - and these views may not be representative of our larger community. (Commenting being an imperfect mechanism for generating debate and discussion, but it is what we have).

Still, I was surprised that there was not a more full throated defense of the EQUIP experiment on these (digital) pages. My guess is that those who see themselves as moderates are less likely to sound off.  My guess is that the great majority of higher ed professionals will (quietly) think that EQUIP may not be perfect, but on balance the program makes some good sense.  

Here is why I think that the EQUIP program is a positive development, one that we should support and try to build on:

1 - An Experiment:

To me, the big story of EQUIP is that the Education Department is willing to engage in a disciplined experiment. 

How many of us wish that we had something like the experimental sites authority (a provision of the Higher Education Act) in which to waive our traditional requirements, and try something different?

Our image of the federal government is usually not one of risk taking, experimentation, and a willingness to fail quickly. These are characteristics that most of us admire about the world of startups - and that we wish our schools would exhibit more readily. 

The fact that the Department of Education is willing to try something different, and to do so at a scale that is larger enough to learn something but small enough to mitigate risks, is a step we should all applaud.

2 - Quality Assurance:

How often do we bake in an independent quality assurance methodology into our campus projects and initiatives?  We know that doing so is important - we believe in making decisions based on data - but it is still rare for those of us in higher ed to include truly independent assessment and evaluation processes into our own projects.

As I understand the set-up of EQUIP, the QAE’s (quality assurance entities) will provide data on the effectiveness and return on investment of the programs.  We will have the opportunity to draw our conclusions based on data, as opposed to our biases and opinions about the experiment. How do you argue against data?  

(For a more critical review of the quality assurance component of EQUIP, check out Anthony Carnevale's 8/26/16 IHE Views piece One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.  I am still processing his argument - but at this point I'm still excited about the QAE's focus on actual student learning - but I'm happy that this discussion of EQUIP is occuring).

3 - Focus on Providing Opportunity to Low-Income Students:

The Education Department has been consistent over the past 8 years in putting together their postsecondary strategy. This has been a strategy designed to improve access to higher education for low-income students. Almost every discussion that I have with folks in the federal government about higher education and learning technology includes a discussion about improving access and ensuring completion.

How can any of us object to a goal of increased opportunity? Do any of us believe that higher education should be reserved for only the privileged - or that high levels of debt should come with a degree? You may think that the federal government will be ineffective in growing educational opportunity - but isn’t the quality assurance aspect of EQUIP the way that we will figure this out?

4 - A Commitment to Pushing Cultural Change:

The Education Department have been clear that they see EQUIP as a mechanism to change some aspects of higher ed culture. They want both the accreditors, and perhaps those of us working at colleges and universities, to pay attention to outcomes. 

We shouldn’t measure the effectiveness of our higher ed investments (both societal and individual) solely on inputs. We should be willing to look at outcomes such as student learning, employment and income as dependent variables - and then adjust our inputs to improve those outcomes.

Some of us may have issues with this agenda. We will have strong opinions both about the roles of our accrediting bodies, the place of for-profit education, and the autonomy of our institutions. Great. At least the people in the Education Department are being clear about their goals.

5 - Transparency:

Finally, from everything that I can see - the Education Department is committed to fully transparency with EQUIP.  They will publish the data. They will create room for a discussion about what we can all learn in our higher ed community from EQUIP.

How many of us can make similar claims about the transparency of our initiatives? Do we always make available the data about the results of our campus experiments?

So this is my challenge to you. Learn more about EQUIP.  Share the story of EQUIP with your colleagues.  

Join the debate about the challenges and opportunities that EQUIP represents, as well as ways that you think that the federal government can (and should) push a postsecondary reform agenda.



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