Chronicle for Higher Education: Experiment Measures Quality

By Goldie Blumenstyk - August 17, 2016

Experiment With New Education Providers Also Tests New Ways to Measure Quality

A project with instruction provided by both the Flatiron School, a coding academy, and SUNY's Empire State College is among the eight partnerships chosen to participate in the Education Department's pilot program. The designated "quality assurance entity" for that project is the American National Standards Institute. Above, students at the Flatiron School.

Four coding boot camps, three companies offering other alternative-education offerings, and the global conglomerate General Electric were chosen on Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education to participate in a new experiment that will allow eight colleges to offer Pell Grants and federal student loans to as many as 1,500 students in programs where unaccredited providers supply a majority of the education.

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Nominally, the use of federal student aid for such programs is what’s groundbreaking about the idea. That’s because except for in experiments like this Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships program, known as Equip, federal law prevents colleges from using federal student aid when more than 50 percent of the program is outsourced to unaccredited outside providers.

Ultimately, however, Equip could become just as significant for a second element of the program: its unusual approach to measuring the merits of the educational offerings. In addition to having accreditors oversee the partnerships between colleges and outside providers, each project is to be monitored by a third-party "quality assurance entity" — including some, like the American National Standards Institute, not traditionally thought of as evaluators of higher-education.

"It’s a huge marker for the direction of higher education," says Nan Travers, director of collegewide academic review at the State University of New York’s Empire State College. Her college will work with the national-standards institute as its quality-assurance evaluator on a joint offering with the Flatiron School, a coding academy, on a certificate program in web development that will include curricula from Flatiron and Empire State. The certificate will be designed so that the credits could later be applied toward an associate or bachelor’s degree at Empire State or another college. The standards institute, which is better known for such things as setting standards for appliances and other products, will oversee that the curriculum is delivered as promised and that Empire State’s processes for assessing students are sound.

“It's a huge marker for the direction of higher education.”

 Other bodies chosen as quality-assurance entities include: the American Council on Education; a company called Climb, which provides loans to students who enroll in coding boot camps; Quality Matters, an organization that works primarily with courseware instructional designers; and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, known as CHEA, a membership organization for accreditors.

CHEA is not itself an accreditor but in 2013 it did create a set of standards it calls the Quality Platform, specifically designed as tool to measure learning outcomes from MOOCs and other alternative providers. If the innovative-provider sector is going to grow, "quality review is going to be really important," says Judith Eaton, CHEA’s president. It will be the evaluator for a partnership between the Dallas Community College System and the company StraighterLine that provides low-cost courses across several disciplines. Together they will offer two associate-degree programs aimed at students who have already earned some college credits.

Along with the boot camps and StraighterLine, the alternative-education providers chosen for the Equip experiment include a company called, which, in partnership with Thomas Edison State College, will offer two bachelor’s degrees through its online, self-paced videos; the start-up Guild Education, which, with Colorado State University-Global Campus, will provide management and leadership training to low-wage employees; and the corporate giant GE, which will work with Northeastern University to create an accelerated bachelor’s of science in advanced engineering. Initially the Northeastern program will be offered to 20 to 50 GE employees, but the university’s president, Joseph Aoun, said it could eventually be open to nonemployees, and the format expanded to include other industries.

“Is this going to be a repeat of the distance-education demonstration?”

Those providers aside, EQUIP seems "more interesting as a lesson for how do we evaluate quality in higher education," says Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

And, he noted, recalling recent history, the stakes could be high.

Ten years ago, restrictions prevented colleges from using federal student aid on programs where more than 50 percent of the courses were offered via distance education. After an experiment known as a demonstrational project, that so-called 50-percent rule was lifted in 2006, setting the stage for the growth of online education but also, in some cases, overly aggressive recruiting of online students by for-profit colleges. The question, says Mr. Miller, is: "Is this going to be a repeat of the distance-education demonstration?"

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, said the department has taken steps to ensure that "students and taxpayers don’t lose out," including requiring providers to guarantee refunds to students in the event the programs don’t produce the overall promised employment outcomes for participants. "This is a program that has been very tightly circumscribed from the beginning," he said.

Equip is designed to offset the "inflexible and unaffordable" options in traditional higher education that don’t serve working adults and other nontraditional students, Mr. Mitchell said. America has great colleges, he added, but "as a system we’re still catching up to the needs of the ‘new normal’ student."

The department declined to say how many parties had applied for Equip, except to say it was "dozens," or to provide the specific grounds for how the winners were chosen. A fact sheet on its website lists five general criteria, including affordability. (The Chronicle had sought copies of all applications under the Freedom of Information Act. In response it received 246 pages of documents so heavily redacted that it was impossible to determine who or how many organizations had expressed interest in the program. An appeal of the department’s action is pending.)

Costs for the programs vary, and department officials said that in some cases where Pell Grants don’t cover the students’ entire costs, they could also eligible for federal student loans. The department said its cap on Pell Grant spending for the program is $5 million for the first year.

The eight selected partnerships must still seek final approval from their accreditors before they can begin enrolling students. Mr. Mitchell said the department expects that programs could begin enrolling students by fall or winter, which could put the start date after the conclusion of the Obama administration, which ends in January. Mr. Mitchell said he doesn’t expect that to be a problem, but added that if the next administration nixes the experiment, it would be "sad."