Over the past year or so, the higher education industrial complex has been wringing its hands with concern over the Department of Education’s new Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships initiative. The EQUIP program aims to allow low-income students who enroll in non-traditional training, such as coding bootcamps and alternative credentials, access to federal student aid for the first time. Last month, following the Department’s selection of eight sites, a range of critics levied the worst charge possible in the current political environment against the fledgling program: They claim it’s a newfangled vehicle through which for-profits will Hoover up federal financial aid dollars and exploit students.
The goal of EQUIP is to provide faster, less expensive pathways to credentials of value. But since only two of the eight selected sites plan to offer bachelor’s degrees, the initiative’s challenge may have little to do with profiteering, and much more about being slightly ahead of our time.
The past half century in higher education has seen the rise, rise and rise of the bachelor’s degree, to the point that it has become the “sine qua non” for virtually any professional career. According to a recent survey from CareerBuilder, 37 percent of employers now demand bachelor’s degrees for jobs that used to be open to high school graduates. Bachelor’s degrees have become the coin of the employment realm, and those who purchase other coins do so at their peril.
So while I think it’s urgent that we accelerate the arrival of faster, less expensive credentials and I remain a big supporter of EQUIP, I often ask myself whether I’d want my own kids to bet on a sub-baccalaureate science project rather than playing it safe with a degree.
The good news is that, to paraphrase Boris Johnson—who famously said his policy on cake was both “pro having it” and “pro eating it”)—we can have both. As Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University recently noted, there are an “enormous number of affordable options out there” for bachelor’s degrees. LeBlanc’s own College for America is one. Western Governors University is another. The amazing Paul Quinn College is a great new example under the leadership of President Michael Sorrell. But the most important category, of course, are great public universities like the City University of New York, with an average annual cost of just over $5,000, and where the average student graduates with debt of just over $11,000—less than a third of the debt incurred by the average bachelor’s degree graduate who has taken out student loans.
CUNY must share Boris Johnson’s cake policy, because it wants its graduates to gain more than a degree: it wants to ensure that graduates get a great first job in a high-value, fast-growing field. CUNY’s new partnership with Revature, Revature at CUNY, could be a better deal for today’s students than any of the EQUIP selectees. (Disclosure: my firm, University Ventures, is an investor in Revature.)
Revature at CUNY combines a CUNY bachelor’s degree and the free Revature online training and coding bootcamp. Participating CUNY students won’t only get the kind of training the Department is seeking to achieve with EQUIP, they’ll get their first job, because Revature’s unique staffing model guarantees jobs to students who successfully complete the training. How does the company do this? Revature hires students and then places them at clients. Revature is able to offer its training for free because employers are happy to pay a premium for Revature’s purpose-trained talent, as well as the ability to “try before they buy” and ultimately hire. When clients hire students, students get their second job as well. And all this for $11,000 in debt—or what most of the EQUIP programs are likely to charge.
As anyone who read my book "College Disrupted" will attest, I’m big on higher education science fiction. Competency profiles, a GPS for human capital development, and competency marketplaces are on the way and will ultimately transform higher education. But while “ultimately” is a timeframe that works for policy wonks, it’s not great for students who need to decide now on their postsecondary path.
Science fiction alternative credentials are perfect for the science fiction students of tomorrow. But for my money, real students of today are better off investing in inexpensive bachelor’s degrees topped off with real-life coding training: a practical solution for today’s students that should involve no hand-wringing.
Ryan Craig (@ryancraiguv) is Managing Director of University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.