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The U.S. Department of Education continues to work on its plan to grant experimental federal aid eligibility to partnerships between accredited colleges and alternative providers, such as job skills boot camps, coding academies and MOOCs.

A wide range of experts have been summoned to the White House for a meeting at the end of July to discuss this growing space. And department officials say they are seeking comments on how best to spot and ensure quality with nontraditional providers.

“We think that a new set of quality assurance questions will need to be developed to ask hard, important questions about student learning and outcomes,” said Ted Mitchell, under secretary of education, in a blog post last week. “These questions will help students, taxpayers and those evaluating educational programs separate programs that are high quality from those that do not meet the bar.”

Growing numbers of students are enrolling in noninstitutional programs. For example, roughly 16,000 students are expected to graduate from boot camps this year, Fast Company reported, which is up from 6,740 last year.

The White House wants to encourage that growth, at least among what it sees as high-quality providers. As a result, the department has been mulling an “experimental sites” project that would open up federal aid to a limited group of academic programs that colleges and nontraditional providers would offer jointly.

As Inside Higher Ed reported in April, the department would waive certain rules for federal aid eligibility under the experiment, such as the regulation that fewer than 50 percent of academic programs can be outsourced to nonaccredited, noninstitutional providers. The results of the experiment could be used to inform future policy and regulatory decisions.

Details are still being sorted out for the project, sources said. But the goal is to announce its creation in the next two months.

In June, Jamienne Studley, deputy under secretary of education, told a meeting of accreditors that the department was considering the partnership approach to an experimental site. She said the feds are seeking to “encourage dialogue” on how to ensure quality with approved boot camps and noninstitutional online providers.

“We’re very much in listening mode about what we might do,” said Studley, adding that the department’s goal is to strike a “balance between being deliberative and creative.”

To participate in the project, an accredited college and its partner provider -- perhaps a boot camp like General Assembly or an online course provider such as Udacity -- would need to apply to the department and be accepted as an experimental site. Qualifying programs would include the imprimatur of some third-party, such as an accreditor, that does quality assurance based on minimum thresholds the department would establish.

This pathway to alternative accreditation could be managed by a regional accreditor, perhaps through a newly created subsidiary. Another possibility would be a new national accrediting body that specializes in nontraditional providers.

The WASC Senior College and University Commission, a regional accreditor, could be a player in this space. Recently the commission released a policy for how a nonaccredited provider could partner with a traditional college for a “period of incubation” and eventually evolve to hold its own accreditation.

Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University’s president, recently wrapped up a three-month stint as an adviser to the department. One of his tasks was to work on the experimental site project for alternative providers.

The blog post from Mitchell, LeBlanc said, “speaks to the desire to bring new, effective partners into the Title IV ecosystem.”

One goal in this work is for the feds to help students get financial support for the “best of these programs,” he said. But just as important is for the department to ensure quality control and consumer protection, said LeBlanc. That's because the department wants to avoid opening the floodgates of federal aid to subpar providers -- “bad actors” in the parlance of Washington.

“We don’t want to go down the path of Corinthian,” LeBlanc said, referring to the collapse of Corinthian Colleges, a controversial for-profit chain.

Partial Agreement

Mitchell’s statement includes three general categories for questions the department should ask in deciding which programs meet the bar. They revolve around “measurable claims” a provider makes about student learning, the reliability and validity of learning assessment, and the outcomes completers achieve -- including both academic transfer and employment and salary.

Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Senate’s education committee, also has floated ideas for opening up accreditation to noninstitutional online course providers and other new entrants.

On Wednesday Alexander’s committee is holding a hearing on “exploring barriers and opportunities within innovation.” In a news release the committee’s staff said the “hearing will be an opportunity to explore new models of delivering education that could provide high-quality and affordable education, such as competency-based education and personalized learning models.”

In many ways Alexander and other Senate Republicans, including presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, are on the same page as the Obama administration when it comes to upstarts in higher education. All three have said they would like to expand opportunities for students to attend promising providers that exist outside of the models of traditional colleges.

For example, Rubio recently called higher education a "cartel" and promised that, as president, he would create a new accreditation process that "welcomes low-cost, innovative providers."

Yet Rubio and Alexander differ with Obama in their view of the federal role in encouraging and overseeing that sector’s growth. A heavier hand for the feds, where the department controls the path to accreditation, will be less amenable to Republicans.

Andrew Kelly is director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. He applauded the department’s desire to experiment with alternative providers, and to study the results of such a project.

“There is a clear role for the federal government to play in research and development,” said Kelly.

However, Kelly said he is wary of the department playing favorites with the experimental sites project, as he said they did with the gainful employment regulations, which largely target programs at for-profit colleges.

“I don’t think the department is the right institution to make all the calls about who gets in and who gets left out,” he said.

Kelly said he generally likes the approach of bringing in outside entities to do quality assurance. But that still might not be enough to prevent the department from bigfooting the process, he said.

“I don’t have as much confidence about where they end up,” said Kelly. “There’s almost an inevitable momentum to federalize these decisions.”

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