Quality and Noncollege Learning

Education Department announces eight winning partnerships in experiment to open federal aid to alternative providers, with a possibly influential new way of assuring academic quality.

August 17, 2016
White House

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday revealed the eight winning applications for an experiment that will free up federal financial aid for noncollege job training, including offerings by coding boot camps, online course providers and General Electric.

In addition to the alternative providers, each of the eight partnerships (see chart below) features a traditional college or university and a third party that will monitor the academic quality and results of the job training, serving as a sort of alternative accreditor, although regional accrediting agencies still will need to approve the programs.

Ted Mitchell, the U.S. under secretary of education, said in a phone call with reporters that the role of the so-called quality assurance entities will be to "monitor and measure the outcomes, the quality and, ultimately, the value of these programs to students."

As the program took shape, department officials and higher education experts said they hoped it would put pressure on traditional accreditors to be more transparent and more focused on outcomes like the employment of former students. If the program is successful, they said the alternative quality assurance groups also could become accreditors, perhaps even those that serve as gatekeepers to federal aid.

Paul LeBlanc is Southern New Hampshire University's president. He also last year served briefly as an adviser to the department and is a member of the federal panel that oversees accreditors. LeBlanc said the quality assurance piece is the most interesting part of the experiment, which is dubbed the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships program, EQUIP for short.

The project, LeBlanc said, encourages innovative approaches to quality assurance and could lead to a "dramatic shift from inputs and ill-defined outcomes to well-defined claims for learning."

Such a change, he said, could help avoid "a lot of what has bedeviled the for-profit sector."

Quality Matters is one of the EQUIP quality assurance groups. The Maryland-based nonprofit has long conducted certification reviews for online courses. Its partners for the experiment are Thomas Edison State University and Study.com, an online course provider. Students will be able to earn two types of bachelor's degrees under the program, with at least half the courses being self-paced and online.

For its part, Quality Matters will monitor the program's performance on metrics such as credits earned, completion of degrees, cost and student satisfaction.

"We're looking to see if and how these programs are making a positive difference for students," said Deb Adair, the group's executive director.

Other selected quality assurance groups include establishment players like the American Council on Education, one created by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's (CHEA) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). On the more upstart side, participants include Entangled Solutions, Climb (a private education lender) and Tyton Partners, a strategy consulting and investment banking firm that is creating a nonprofit group in partnership with Burning Glass Technologies and others to serve as the quality assurance entity, which will conduct assessments as part of the process.

"Quality assurance is the next big issue in higher education," said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at New America. "This is where we need to start focusing."

It's too early to tell if EQUIP will influence accreditation significantly, she said. Whether that happens depends on the rigor of the process, and if it uses strong metrics to make sure the programs offer high-quality job training.

"We really have to make sure that the data are robust and verifiable, and not self-reported," said Laitinen.

Affordability and Access

The department, which unveiled EQUIP last year, said the total enrollment in the eight partnerships will be capped at 1,500 students. Participating students will be able to quality for Pell Grants and, if needed, federal loans. Department officials said grant aid expenditures for the first year are projected to be $5 million.

Mitchell said dozens of partnerships applied to participate in the "very tightly selected group."

The project will operate under the department's experimental sites authority, which allows the feds to drop certain financial aid rules in the spirit of experimentation. In this case, the department will waive a ban on colleges outsourcing more than half of their course content and instruction to a nonaccredited entity.

A goal of the department for the program was for low-income students to be able to take advantage of innovative job training, which in many cases can be expensive. Most coding boot camps, for example, charge about $12,000 for roughly 12-week programs.

Affordability was a key part of how the department scrutinized applications, as was equitable access, particularly for needier students.

"The goals of EQUIP are both to expand access to these programs for lower-income Americans and to test out new ways of measuring quality outcomes for these nontraditional programs in higher education," the White House said in a blog post.

The State University of New York's Empire State College and the Flatiron School, a New York City-based coding boot camp, submitted one of the successful applications. Both have worked with lower-income and nontraditional students -- the public Empire State was created in 1971 to do just that, and Flatiron recently began offering a no-cost program for New Yorkers funded by the city.

Nan Travers, director of Empire State's office of collegewide academic review, praised EQUIP's use of a third-party reviewer -- ANSI in this partnership -- for the university's well-established practice of issuing credit for learning outside the traditional college classroom.

"It gives us the ability to really validate a process that our college already has in place," she said, also noting that the program also shows "how higher education and industry can really integrate."

The highest-profile partnership includes General Electric, a massive multinational conglomerate, and Northeastern University, which is well known for its co-op program, which places students in semesters of full-time work, related to their majors, with more than 3,000 employer partners. Northeastern also recently got into alternative credentials with the creation of a boot camp for data analytics.

General Electric will provide the work experience for an initial group of up to 50 General Electric employees, said Joseph Aoun, the university's president. Northeastern will provide the teaching and academic oversight, he said, with ACE doing the quality assurance. Students in the program will be able to earn an accelerated bachelor's degree in advanced manufacturing. GE will not receive any federal aid payments.

Aoun said Northeastern has big plans for its piece of EQUIP, and hopes to expand it to students across the country and in different industries, such as cybersecurity and robotics.

One student outcome will be central, Aoun said: "Are they job ready when they finish this program?"

The selected sites follow below (with language from the department):

Institution Nontraditional Provider Quality Assurer Description
Colorado State University Global Campus Guild Education Tyton Partners With Guild Education, the Colorado State University Global Campus plans to offer a one-year certificate program in Management and Leadership Fundamentals, aimed at helping students advance from low-wage roles into supervisory roles. The credits earned in the certificate can also be applied towards a bachelor's degree from CSU Global Campus. Half of the program will be comprised of credits from the Guild leadership modules, and the remaining half will be offered through regular CSU Global course work. Tyton Partners will form a nonprofit organization to serve as the quality assurance entity, in partnership with Burning Glass Technologies and Professional Examination Service, with support from RSM. Its quality assurance processes will include cognitive and noncognitive assessments, compliance reviews of the program and labor-market analytics.
Dallas Community College System StraighterLine CHEA Quality Platform In partnership with StraighterLine, the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) will offer two programs: an associate degree in science (business concentration) and an associate degree in arts (criminal justice concentration). The programs aim to enable individuals in Dallas County that have attended some college, but who have not yet obtained a credential, to complete their degrees with credentials that can help them land jobs in the community. Students will be able to earn up to three-quarters of their degrees through StraighterLine courses. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation's Quality Platform will serve as the quality assurance entity for this program, measuring critical student outcomes like graduation rates, repayment ability and the students' cost per credit.
Marylhurst University Epicodus Climb In partnership with Epicodus, a local software coding school, Marylhurst will offer a 27-week certificate program in web and mobile development, with the goal of providing access to careers in computer software coding to low-income and historically underserved students. The program is designed to support students in a variety of ways, including using a flipped classroom approach so that in-class time will be used for exercises, projects and discussions. It will also include a cohort social learning model that pairs students together. In completing the program, students will not only earn a certificate, but also will have access to industry employers through internship opportunities. Climb, Marylhurst's quality assurance entity, will measure the outcomes for students and progress toward program goals, including data on student satisfaction surveys, persistence, retention, completion and employment information such as salary data.
Northeastern University General Electric American Council on Education In partnership with General Electric, Northeastern University will provide an accelerated bachelor of science in advanced manufacturing. As the industry partner, GE will provide experiential training to students, and Northeastern will codevelop the curriculum alongside GE and provide academic support services. The American Council on Education will serve as the quality assurance entity, leading an academic quality evaluation process and evaluating the learning that takes place and the effectiveness of the program by surveying stakeholders like faculty evaluators, psychometricians and subject matter experts in the field.
SUNY Empire State College The Flatiron School American National Standards Institute The proposed SUNY Empire State program is partnering with the Flatiron School, a coding school with experience serving both low- and high-income students. The program will allow students to earn a certificate in web development. Courses will be offered through multiple modalities, including both online and in person, depending on the program. Graduates will complete the program with a professional work portfolio of web products and a technical blog and profile. The quality assurance entity, American National Standards Institute, will evaluate student work, assessments and key student outcomes such as credit transfer, retention and completion rates, using and building on existing models and processes for quality assurance.
Thomas Edison State University Study.com Quality Matters Thomas Edison State University plans to partner with Study.com to offer a bachelor of science in business administration and a bachelor of arts in liberal studies through online, self-paced video courses. In these programs, at least half of their course work will be completed by taking Study.com courses. Students will complete the courses they need in the correspondence program at their own pace. Quality Matters, which has served for over a decade as a quality assurance provider, will be the program's quality assurance entity. It will apply and adapt its Online Learner Success quality assurance framework to address the program's specific questions and assess the extent to which the program improves student outcomes such as credits earned, completion of the degree, cost compared to national benchmarks and student satisfaction.
University of Texas at Austin MakerSquare Entangled Solutions and Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico The University of Texas at Austin proposes to partner with MakerSquare -- a coding and software boot camp -- to offer a 13-week certificate program in web development. Students will learn a range of programming skills, including JavaScript and functional web computer programming, to prepare them for jobs as midlevel software engineers. The program will be continuously evaluated by two quality assurance entities: Entangled Solutions and Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico LLP. Entangled Solutions will have responsibility for setting and monitoring outcomes-based standards for the program including claims for learning, assessments, student work, placement rates, earnings growth and student satisfaction, while MFA will provide independent auditing to verify the program's reported data, particularly for employment outcomes.
Wilmington University Zip Code Wilmington HackerRank Wilmington will partner with Zip Code Wilmington, a nonprofit software development organization, to offer a 12-week boot camp program in Software Development that will provide students with skills to pursue an entry-level position using Java programming language. Zip Code Wilmington places graduates of the boot camp in either long-term apprenticeships or direct-hire employment, and plans to help find employment for its students with one of its many corporate partners. Wilmington and Zip Code Wilmington have engaged Hacker Rank and Code to Work to serve as the program's quality assurance entities and to assess student learning, track progress, benchmark performance, assess skills, and the measure employment outcomes.


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