DOE Financial Aid Open to Students in Non-Institutional Programs

October 15, 2015. The gap between small and large institutions represents a massive valley. Small colleges and institutions have fewer resources flowing into it, which means the staff has to work harder and get creative to work with what they have to meet the demands of an expanding workforce and student body. With colleges and universities starting to receive more undergrad applications than they can accommodate for, potential students have started to turn to non-institutional providers, such as boot camps, that can train people for skills needed to get into an industry. However, students may not have the budget to afford these programs either. Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary of Education at the US Department of Education, may have a solution to this: the federal government will loosen restrictions on institutions that cooperate with “alternative education providers,” such as massive-online open-course (MOOCs) developers and coding boot camps. In exchange, students enrolled in such programs will have eligibility for Title IV financial aid. The Department of Education has launched the “Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships” (EQUIP) pilot, open to select institutions that cooperate with non-institutional providers to generate new programs. These partnerships must include a third-party independent “Quality Assurance Entity” of the institution’s choice that will monitor and evaluate the program’s rigor. The school’s accrediting agency must also approve.

As a brand new program that breaks the norms, many people expect controversy to surface. EQUIP will waive current rules that prevent institutions that offer financial aid from outsourcing more than half of their content and instruction to non-accredited outside organizations. This means a sole outside company can provide the entire programming, including curriculum, assessment, and faculty. EQUIP gives institutions the ability to devise programs that they normally could not afford, allowing them to create programs and establish partnerships for greater opportunities down the road. Making financial aid available to non-institutional providers broadens access to better programming. While 30% of US adults possess a bachelor’s degree, wealthier students have eight times the chance of earning that degree by age 24 compared to low-income families.

The Department of Education approves of the effort put forth by non-institutional providers, seeing that these privately-owned businesses provide an education just as effective as public institutions at preparing students with the education and training required for the workplace. While not every provider has a success story, many companies have started working with these colleges in hopes of improving the quality of the curriculum for not only the students, but also the faculty, staff, and financial aid administration and management. 

As a new program, no one truly knows how to measure the success of EQUIP. Traditional analysts that measured quality in higher education, accreditation, never accounted for today’s non-institutional providers. Analysts seek a new quality assurance process that will rely on fewer inputs and more outputs and evidence. With regards to EQUIP, quality assurance entities must evaluate non-institutional providers on four aspects: 1) claims made about student learning and outcomes, 2) assessments and other evidence used to evaluate claims, 3) student outcomes in terms of employment or salary, and 4) management and stability of the company to ensure it is financially sound. Quality assurance entities will supplement existing accrediting agencies, not replace.

Concerns around this new program have already surfaced. The idea of financial aid going towards companies resembles other predatory for-profit education providers that have historically falsified data about student outcomes in order to garner more tuition money. The idea that colleges can basically outsource entire academic curriculums will likely cause concerns. The academic boot camp providers feel the exact same pressure too because access to financial aid may lead to a swift grab & go by companies looking to open new boot camps to capitalize on this growing fad. If companies do this, many low-quality programs will start to appear, causing negative connotations of the businesses that many entrepreneurs worked so hard to start up. With financial aid now going towards boot camps, business owners now feel more wary of private companies looking to make a quick buck. After all, the most important outcome out of all of this revolves around high-quality programs with integrity that will allow students to emerge successful.