Former ED Official Joins Bootcamp Lender to Lead Quality Assurance Efforts

Movers and Shakers

Former ED Official Joins Bootcamp Lender to Lead Quality Assurance Efforts

By Tony Wan     Sep 12, 2018

Former ED Official Joins Bootcamp Lender to Lead Quality Assurance Efforts
Yuanxia Ding

It’s not uncommon for U.S. Department of Education (ED) officials to go on to work in education technology after Washington. Former education secretary Arne Duncan is now a partner at Emerson Collective, and has also joined the board of directors at edtech companies including Pluralsight and Turnitin. Former directors at Education Department’s technology office, including Karen Cator, Richard Culatta and Joseph South, now hold executive roles at different education technology nonprofits.

Making the latest move is Yuanxia Ding, who previously served as chief of staff to the department’s former Under Secretary, Ted Mitchell, during the Obama Administration. Today, she’s announcing that she will join Skills Fund, a private lender to non-traditional education programs, as its chief impact officer.

Ding says her career passion lies in accreditation reform; specifically, ensuring that postsecondary education programs are aligned with workforce needs, and held accountable in providing students with the skills they need to pursue meaningful careers. “If you think about what’s going on with higher education today, there are many places of disagreement,” she says in an interview with EdSurge. “But one increasingly clear area of agreement across both [political] parties is the need for accreditation reform and quality assurance.”

One of the biggest questions in higher-education reform remains whether a school’s eligibility to receive student financial aid should be tied to its ability to deliver on student outcomes.

For Skills Fund, that answer is a resounding yes. The Austin-based company provides loans to students to attend non-accredited, skills-training programs (including coding bootcamps). Programs that offer loans through the Skills Fund must pass the company’s quality-assurance checks, which aim to ensure that students who finish these programs get jobs and earn enough so they can pay back the school (and the loan). Skill Fund does not currently work with accredited non-profit colleges and universities.

It’s a space that Ding knows well. At the Department of Education, she worked on the Experimental Sites Initiative, a sandbox of experiments that waive certain federal financial aid rules for schools and programs experimenting with new models of education. She helped steer EQUIP, which explored whether higher-ed institutions and nontraditional education providers can partner to create programs that are eligible for federal student aid.

EQUIP, however, has largely stalled; only one of the eight proposed partnerships is approved for federal student aid. Four have withdrawn, says Ding, as institutions closed or changed directions with their offerings. The others are still a work in progress.

The aspiration of EQUIP was two-folds, says Ding: to give low-income learners access to skills-training programs that could help them get a degree or job at lower cost, and to support quality assurance organizations exploring with new models of outcomes-based accreditation. The stalled experiment shows “a need for continued collaboration around innovating on quality assurance issues,” she adds, “and it’s quite clear the work still needs a push.”

To note, Skills Fund’s founder and CEO, Rick O’Donnell, has critiqued EQUIP, once calling it an “well-intentioned but ill-conceived” program. Among his quibbles: bootcamps and traditional universities ultimately serve different types of students, at different stages of their careers.

Yet driving her decision to join Skills Fund, Ding says, is a desire to “rebuild trust” in the connection between postsecondary education and human capital development. “But that hope and trust requires transparency, qualitative and quantitative measurements, and the ability and courage to recognize both the positive and negative in schools, programs and training providers.”

Ding’s new role will be focused on refining the Skills Fund’s quality assurance protocols, and talking with employers to learn about the competencies that they expect from training programs. She adds: “Ultimately, the employer is the accreditor of last resort.”

Skills Fund currently works with 80 partner schools and skills-training programs in technology, transportation, maintenance and health, among other industries.

It has also cut ties with several programs. According to O’Donnell, Skills Fund has “fired” four schools for “poor performance, outcomes that fall below our quality threshold, and in cases where a school’s operational challenges place them and their students at risk.” That means students cannot receive loans from Skills Fund to attend these programs.

Predatory for-profit institutions that have taken student loans without fulfilling their promise of delivering rigorous educational programs “have led to a loss of trust in accreditors,” notes Ding. “Accreditors are meant to be the assurers of quality, and it is a tough time for trust right now.”

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