Equipped for EQUIP? Here’s a Primer

Equipped for EQUIP? Here’s a Primer

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On October 15th, the Department of Education launched a new Experimental Site called Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP), which creates a pathway to federal aid for unaccredited education providers--including the fast-growing bootcamp sector. Here’s what you need to know.

The US Department of Education’s Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI) is a policymaker’s dream. The authority granted though the ESI allows the Secretary of Education to waive certain rules governing federal financial aid to experiment with new models and test their impact. The goal: improve access for low-income students, and increase the return on our $130 billion annual investment in student aid.

As a policy “lab,” Experimental Sites have allowed the Department of Education to provide Title IV access for self-paced and competency-based programs, decouple aid from the credit hour, and fund students who demonstrate prior learning through assessments. More recently, the Administration used the ESI to restore Pell Grant access for prisoners--a critical component of its criminal justice reform efforts. To be sure, the ESI gives a tremendous amount of flexibility to the Administration.

The primary waiver in EQUIP focuses on the “50% rule,” which prohibits accredited institutions from outsourcing more than 50% of an educational program for students who receive federal financial aid. The Department’s goal is, in part, to incentivize partnerships between accredited institutions and nontraditional providers that complement their program of study in order to improve student outcomes or create new efficiencies.

But there is also a deeper experiment at play. EQUIP is about more than evaluating programs, it is about evaluating evaluation. Through the experiment, the Department is asking providers to articulate the metrics that matter to employers, institutions, accreditors--and most of all, students. What results should programs be held accountable for producing? More importantly, how should those outcomes be measured? Implicit in the program’s design is a focus on output- rather than input-based accountability. By introducing the concept of “Quality Assurance Entities,” the initiative also raises questions about the role of existing accreditors in evaluating new forms of education. Is the evaluation of a coding bootcamp fundamentally different from the evaluation of a master’s degree program? What types of organizations have the ability to effectively measure programmatic outcomes? Is the competency to evaluate new programs something existing accreditors either have or should develop?

EQUIP has been controversial in its early days. Before the details were released, former Deputy Under Secretary Robert Shireman urged “extreme caution” and pointed out the risk that low-quality providers might expand beyond their capacity and fail to deliver high-quality programs. Alexander Holt from New America issued a scathing review, arguing that federal aid would ruin this new sector. Dartmouth’s Joshua Kim was more bullish—making the case that EQUIP would “energize collaboration across the postsecondary provider ecosystem.”

EQUIP comes at a unique political moment as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle consider alternatives to accreditation and debate the merits of expanding Title IV access across a panoply of new models of higher education. Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander’s white paper on accreditation calls out providers like General Assembly, StraighterLine and Coursera. The recent Higher Education Innovation Act introduced by Senators Rubio (R-FL) and Bennet (D-CO) outlines the contours of an entirely new accreditation pathway.

Higher education institutions and so-called innovators are anxiously scurrying to make connections and explore partnerships. New accountability models are being hatched as an entirely new evaluation market comes into being. The American National Standards Initiative (ANSI) recently issued a press release to make the case for their status as Quality Assurance Entity. Nontraditional providers are being forced to make good on claims and prove their outcomes. Accreditors are, for better or worse, on edge. EQUIP is a serious, timely experiment that policymakers and innovators should study carefully. Letters of intent are not due until December, but the initiative has already succeeded in sparking a more thoughtful conversation and bringing needed focus to the debate on the role of nontraditional providers.

Ben Wallerstein is the co-founder of Whiteboard Advisors, which recently published a summary of the EQUIP program. Bart Epstein is Founding CEO of the Jefferson Education Accelerator and a Research Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

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