Critics question federal aid for MOOCs, boot camps

By Laura Devaney, Director of News, @eSN_Laura
October 20th, 2015

Partnerships between institutions and MOOCs, boot camp programs could be eligible for federal financial aid.

federal-aid-nontraditionalA new program from the U.S. Department of Education will open up access to federal aid for partnerships between colleges and universities and non-traditional education providers such as MOOC providers and skill-building boot camps. But some critics say scaling overnight isn’t the best idea.

The Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships, or EQUIP, will require partnerships to involve a quality assurance entity to ensure transparent student outcomes and ongoing quality improvement, U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell noted in a blog post.

The program’s goals are to:

  • Learn whether permitting partnerships between institutions and non-traditional providers increases equity by providing access to innovative educational programs for students from diverse backgrounds, particularly those from low-income backgrounds;
  • Examine student outcomes to evaluate the effectiveness of these non-traditional providers;
  • Assess quality-assurance processes that are appropriate for non-traditional providers and the programs they offer; and
  • Identify ways to protect students and taxpayers from risks in an innovative and emerging area of postsecondary education.

The experiment also would waive a clause that prevents colleges and universities offering federal student aid from partnering with organizations that are not postsecondary institutions to provide content and instruction for 50 percent or more of an education program to another entity.

Waiving that, according to the Education Department, will give colleges and universities more flexibility to expand innovative partnerships and educational programs to increase access for students. It also will allow the department to evaluate whether those programs are promoting positive student outcomes.

The Education Department will only offer access to Title IV aid to a limited number of programs, which will have to meet five broad sets of criteria that will be used during the selection process to evaluate applications:

  • Innovative approach to helping students achieve positive outcomes
  • Equity and access, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds
  • Rigorous proposed quality assurance process
  • Affordability of the programs
  • Strong proposed student and taxpayer protections

The EQUIP experiment is not without critics, though–many of whom say that expanding access to federal aid in this way could damage the quality of nontraditional programs.

An influx of students into such nontraditional programs, due in part to an easier loan process, could potentially put too much demand on the boot camp system and may result in lower quality programs, said Todd Zipper, president and CEO of Learning House, which manages online programs for colleges and universities.

“You have to be careful when you’re teaching such a unique, difficult-to-learn-and-teach concept. You cannot scale this exponentially overnight,” he said.

“As great as this initiative sounds, the Department of Education should proceed with extreme caution, as history has shown that, whenever you open the federal financing spigot in the education sector, you risk being flooded with low-quality programs run by charlatans,” wrote Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, in a Sept. 2 blog post before the EQUIP program was formally announced.

Shireman met with Mitchell and offered suggestions about how to frame the experiment; read more of his comments here.

Add your opinion to the discussion.