The more things change, the more they stay the same. That's the thought that came to mind as the U. S. Department of Education announced the winning applicants to the Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships initiative, an experimental program that would allow job training programs like coding boot camps and online courses to qualify for federal student aid for the first time.
It's not that using federal student aid for job training programs is a bad idea. It isn't. Preparing a workforce for 21st-century careers is in the American public's interest, and organizations outside colleges and universities may be better able to provide targeted training.
So the rationale for the EQUIP program -- that a well-trained citizenry and an innovative training sector are in the public's interest -- is sound. But if we are going to use taxpayer dollars for job training, we need to be assured the programs will create new jobs and new taxpayers.
Where the Education Department’s initiative falls short is in its implementation. Specifically, it entrusts quality assurance to third-party entities when the federal government is entirely capable of measuring the quality of job training programs directly.
In fact, that's exactly what the federal government is already doing with its gainful employment rule, which regulates certificate and associate degree programs at for-profit colleges and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which funds the largest federal job training program. To its credit, the Obama administration has invested more than $700 million to help more than 40 states measure the employment and wage outcomes of postsecondary education and training programs.
But in the case of EQUIP, the administration is violating its own standard for transparency and accountability in education and training programs. The third-party quality-assurance entities are supposed to serve as something of an alternate accreditation system, although regional accrediting agencies will also approve the programs. The department has said it hopes this will lead accreditation to be more outcomes based, and some quality-assurance entities say they will measure outcomes. But that’s too much hope and not nearly enough change, especially when some of the outcomes being measured, such as student satisfaction, are nebulous.
What is quality in job-training programs? The answer is straightforward. If I'm considering entering a coding boot camp, I care about four things:
- How much will it cost?
- Will I get a job?
- Will it be a coding job?
- How much money will I make?
These four questions can be answered using robust administrative data that's already collected by the government. The federal government already does this for certificate and associate degree programs at for-profit colleges, federal job training programs, and career and technical education programs, and even publishes earnings information in its College Scorecard. For instance, it requires for-profit colleges to submit enrollment data by program of study and then connects those data to wage records from the Social Security Administration. Similarly, it collects program data from federal job-training programs funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and connects them to state-based unemployment insurance records that include wage data.
On EQUIP, it is taking a massive step backward by relying on an accreditation model that is demonstrably flawed, one that has led to egregious outcomes and a waste of public funds in the case of many for-profit colleges and many programs at nonprofit providers as well. The basic flaw in the accreditation model that is used by regional accreditors and other third-party entities is that they are designed to set standards and provide feedback to colleges, not to measure outcomes and regulate the funding of programs.
True, several of the quality-assurance entities have stated that they will measure something at least tangentially related to jobs. For instance, Tyton Partners, one quality-assurance entity, says it will measure “labor-market analytics” while another, CHEA Quality Platform, says it will measure “repayment ability.” But what about the other programs? How can we be sure a job-training program is good if we know nothing about whether it actually leads to a job? What's more, each program will use a different set of metrics and there will be no way to compare quality across programs.
So while we applaud the department's effort to promote innovation and fund job training programs, we believe that all job-training programs that receive federal funds should be systematically subjected to a gainful employment standard measured by employment, job placement and earnings.