DeVos Wants More Bootcamp-University Partnerships. Here’s a Look Inside...


DeVos Wants More Bootcamp-University Partnerships. Here’s a Look Inside One.

By Sydney Johnson     Feb 1, 2019

DeVos Wants More Bootcamp-University Partnerships. Here’s a Look Inside One.
Dominican University faculty began teaching at the Make School campus (above) in fall 2018. Photo credit: Make School

It came as a surprise to many last November when a for-profit coding school and a small liberal arts college announced that the two would join forces.

Nestled in the green hills of Marin Country, Calif., Dominican University has been around for 129 years, and didn’t have many offerings available for students interested in technology or computer science. Less than 20 miles south in downtown San Francisco, Make School, a coding bootcamp, was looking into ways it could get its two-year program accredited to offer students a bachelor’s degree.

Now the two schools are helping fill each other’s gaps. As part of the agreement, Dominican will help Make School bring liberal arts courses to its coding curriculum to bulk up to a bachelor’s degree program, and in return, Make School will help Dominican create a minor in computer science.

There aren’t many examples that mimic the partnership—yet. But across the country in Washington D.C., the Department of Education has shared proposals that could open the door to more arrangements between accredited and unaccredited institutions. Advocates say that could lead to more innovation in higher ed. But even those excited about the Make School and Dominican University partnership aren’t sure that loosening regulations is good thing.

The proposal put forth by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would remove restrictions on accredited colleges to contract out entire educational programs to unaccredited education providers. That would be a big shift from the policies already in place, which cap the amount of outsourcing that colleges and universities can do with outside providers at 50 percent.

That policy would also mean that if universities work with an unaccredited provider, those programs would still be eligible for financial aid. “A student could effectively attend a bootcamp using federal loans, using an accredited college as a pass-through,” according to POLITICO.

A New Deal

For Make School and Dominican University, the partnership was made possible through an incubation policy by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, or WASC, that allows unaccredited schools to partner with existing colleges and later become a separately accredited institution.

Dominican University of California President Mary B. Marcy (Photo credit: Sydney Johnson)

Leaders at both schools consider the deal a win-win. For Dominican, president Mary Marcy says the partnership allows the university to quickly—and more cheaply—create a computer-science minor for students across campus and disciplines.

“For undergraduate education, we really felt like we needed to offer more in the space of technology digital literacy. We also knew that developing a computer science program from scratch would take years and millions of dollars,” says Marcy. “And it’s not clear that we would be really good at it or highly competitive.”

Meanwhile, Make School will learn the ropes about federal policies, measuring and reporting student outcomes and data, and other requirements to remaining an accredited college. “We get to lean on Dominican's expertise on how to report data to the federal government—and basically, learn how to become a college by effectively serving an apprenticeship under an existing college,” says Make School co-founder Ashu Desai.

The majority of 2018 coding bootcamp graduates (72 percent) had a bachelor degree or higher, according to Course Report, which gathers data and reviews about the bootcamp industry. Since its launch in 2015, Make School has instead targeted younger students with an alternative to a four-year college. But over the years, Desai says it became clear that students in the program—in particular women and students of color—still wanted that bachelor’s credential.

“Students felt that it was actually important for them, for their communities and for their families, to be on a degree path,” he says. “When you’re entering a field that’s already constantly questioning whether you belong, not having a piece of paper that helps prove that is really hard.”

Make School claims 45 percent of its students are underrepresented students of color and 60 percent come from families who make below $60,000 per year.

Make School students in 2018 (Photo credit: Make School)

Each school is swapping instructors for the partnership, too. Make School staff have started teaching a 20-person computer science course at Dominican. And Dominican faculty are teaching liberal arts courses at Make School.

Devil’s In The Details

Jamienne Studley, president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, thinks Dominican University is a good example of how proposals to open up opportunities for universities to partner with unaccredited institutions “can be done thoughtfully, and that doing it thoughtfully doesn't take a long time.”

But she still has concerns when it comes down to specifics. “Is there some number other than 100 percent that would make the policy, or that we should start with?” she says. “We've seen enough abuses in higher education and approval of their financing.”

Russell Poulin, senior director of policy, analysis and strategic alliances at WCET, is on the subcommittee for distance learning and innovation, which is helping the Department of Education create new federal rules and proposals for higher education. He shares Studley’s concerns. “The worst case scenario could be a small institution that is struggling and then they go awry of their mission with all sorts of outsourcing.”

He and others in the subcommittee worry about another question the committee is debating: accreditation. “They are proposing a lot of different changes to our accreditors, and there's an interest in having more competition among the accreditors,” says Poulin. “But there's some worry that if you have competition among the accreditors, you have people lowering standards in order to draw membership, and that would undermine the purpose of the agency.”

That’s essential, he says, “because there's a lot of reliance on accreditor oversight of those sorts of agreements” such as the Make School and Dominican University partnership, or the proposals the Department is putting forth to allow institutions to outsource programs.

“The system works if you have strong enough accreditation standards in the first place,” says Studley. “In the federal proposals, there are elements that, depending on how they're ultimately defined and applied, could make it too easy to become an accreditor.”

It’s too soon to label the Make School and Dominican University partnership a success. And there’s also a long time before the Department’s proposals could be formalized or even passed. The proposed regulations must be made by October in order to become rule by July 1 of next year.

Poulin says one suggestion floated in the subcommittee would be to limit how many programs an institution could outsource. “You could imagine a scenario with a shell institution that actually teaches nothing, but then outsources all these things. Who's in charge? Who's watching that?”

Try, Try Again

Before working at WASC, Studley was the deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama Administration. And she draws parallels between the partnership between Make School and Dominican (and DeVos’ proposals) to EQUIP, a pilot program that aimed to give nontraditional providers access to federal financial aid by connecting them with accredited schools.

But that program faded quietly away. In 2018 Inside Higher Ed reported that several of the EQUIP experiments have pulled out. “That's kind of what you might imagine from an experiment, and from this whole conversation,” says Studley. But “how much of that is because the initial ideas turn out not to have been ready for primetime, or didn't make the cut qualitatively, or just people moved in other directions?”

Poulin sees pros and cons to opening up more opportunities like what EQUIP tried to achieve or what Make School is doing. “I can imagine there are partnerships where you have good synergy between the programs,” he says. “On the other hand, it could be bad. One of the worries I had with EQUIP was that it seemed like you were putting on so much more financial aid administration.”

That is a key difference for Make School, which applied for the EQUIP program but wasn’t selected. At Make School, most students pay their tuition through income-share agreements, or ISAs, so students pay back a portion of their income only after graduating and landing a job rather than paying up-front tuition.

Desai says that financing model creates less need for federal aid through the partnership. “We actually don't care about the funding, we care about the accreditation,” he says. The school will not encourage students not to take on federal loans, he continued, but says they will suggest that students apply for Pell Grants and other funding to cover living expenses and other costs not associated with tuition.

That was one selling point for Dominican, too. Marcy says faculty and board members initially had reservations about working with a for-profit institution, but felt reassured by the ISA model. “Their incentive is student success. And the for-profits that I think have been bad actors, their focus has really been on getting access to federal financial aid. So to me, that's a profound distinction.”

Left: Meadowlands Hall at Dominican University (Sydney Johnson) Right: Entrance to Make School on Post Street in San Francisco (Make School)

Desai also points out that the relationship with Dominican is different than a case where a school would outsource 100 percent of its program, which DeVos has proposed. An important part of the agreement is that the two schools will phase out the incubation after around three to five years so Dominican can run its own computer science minor, and Make School can be an independently accredited institution.

College Matchmaker

On paper, Make School and Dominican University couldn’t seem more different. But something about each school’s quirks and Bay Area roots seems to click. Visible from the Dominican campus is the previous home of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who, legend has it, used to frequent the school grounds. At Make School, students and instructors are asked to take off their shoes as they enter the building. Desai says it’s an effort to make people feel more comfortable and at home.

The bigger difference was simply understanding how each other operates. “I remember a lot of work and a lot of adapting, and in places where culturally we were just learning to speak each other's language,” says Marcy.

The two schools are already learning from each other. “One of our faculty taught general education at Make School this fall,” Marcy said laughing. “I saw her at our faculty staff retreat to start the second semester, and she was wearing a hoodie.”

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