On Tuesday, The U.S. Department of Education announced (Department press release, Wall Street Journal story) the eight partnerships that were selected in the EQUIP (Educational QUality through Innovative Partnerships) experimental sites program. The Department sought collaborations between accredited institutions that offer federal financial aid and newer providers who were previously not eligible to offer aid. The ultimate goal is to help low-income students use federal aid to earn credentials that will quickly earn them employment.
The experimental sites program allows the Department to wave some (but not all) aid regulations. For the purposes of this program, waived was the ceiling of no more than 50 percent of the education in a certificate of degree program being offered by an “alternative provider.” Even with the waiver, the non-accredited provider would need to partner with an accredited college.
The Eight Programs Chosen
The chosen participating collaborations represent a mix of programs. While about half of the credentials are focused on computer programming, there is an attempt in some of the remaining projects to go beyond training programs that lead to obtaining only a narrow set of vocational skills.
I’m also glad to see five WCET members being chosen to participate. Accredited institutions include Colorado State University-Global Campus, Dallas County Community College District, and Thomas Edison State College. StraighterLine is a non-accredited provider and Quality Matters is serves as a Quality Assurance Entity (QAE).
As you may recall, WCET helped to disseminate information about the program last fall. Together with the Community College of Denver, we hosted an in-person question and answer session with David Soo, who runs the program for the Department. We will have a session on the EQUIP program at the WCET Annual Meeting in October in Minneapolis. Please join us!
The Department has initiated several experimental sites programs in the past few years and they should be applauded for beginning to expand their horizons. While I understand that the program is just beginning, I do have some questions (or comments disguised as questions) about the program and what may come of it.
- How will we apply what we learn from the varied quality oversight models used?
Each project is required to engage a Quality Assurance Entity (QAE) to address a very long list of quality oversight questions. Given that this is an experimental program, an extensive set of metrics was needed. There are a wide variety of agencies. Given the attack (sometimes fair, but almost always overstated) on accrediting agencies, it will be interesting if higher education can find some new models that might work.
- What will be the role of the accrediting agencies?
The accrediting agencies seemed to be only tangentially included. Will some insert themselves into the process more aggressively than others?
- Who is responsible for consumer protection? What will be the role of the state oversight agencies?
There might be two oversight agencies that oversee the activities of this collaboration. By federal regulation, the aid-granting institution must have a state agency that receives complaints and acts upon those complaints. Many states have agencies that oversee non-accredited businesses that offer vocational training or non-credit instruction. In those states, there are those in the “alternative provider” world that have chosen to ignore the regulators and/or declare themselves exempt (even if they are not), or tell students that they have all the proper approvals (even if they do not). On this, I twice contacted one provider and was assured that all was fine in a state in which I knew they were out-of-bounds. At a recent Departmental gathering, one well-known leader of such a company declared that “my only accreditor is the marketplace.” That’s great for the business and is valid for his business. This is bad news for students. (Caveat: I do NOT mean to paint all alternative providers with the same negative broad brush. As with anyone offering education, there are the good and the not-so-good.)
- Could someone explain to me the whole “for-profit” relationship with the Department?
On the one hand, there is this (often justified and recently intensified) vehemence toward the for-profit higher education sector. On the other hand, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, and some in the Department have doubted the ability of traditional higher education to meet societal (again some justification there) and have touted a new set of for-profits as the saviors.
- When will Congress give the Department more leeway to be even more creative?
The Department could not set aside all regulations for the experimental sites program. For example, adherence to the “regular and substantive interaction” regulation probably kept away some MOOC and adaptive learning providers. In the next higher Education Act, can the Department get even more leeway to waive regulations on an experimental basis?
- If “regular and substantive interaction” had to be enforced, how did a correspondence program make the cut?
The Department’s Office of the Inspector general wants the Department to crack down on aid to programs that don’t meet their interaction definition. How will this one project comply?
- What’s in it for the colleges? Won’t it make sense to let the providers give their own aid?
That’s a long-term question.
Innovations SHOULD raise questions as they are exploring unfamiliar territory. I fully support the program and eagerly await the lessons to be learned.
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
303 – 541 – 0305
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