The following is a company-submitted press release and does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Spaces4Learning.

Department of Ed Launches the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) Experiment to Provide Low-Income Students with Access to New Models of Education and Training

The Obama Administration today announced a new pilot program to accelerate and evaluate innovation through partnerships between colleges and universities and non-traditional providers of education in order to equip more Americans with the skills, knowledge, and training they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

In today's knowledge-based economy, education and training is more critical than ever before. A high school diploma is no longer sufficient to assure access to the middle class. As the importance of postsecondary education and credentials grows, we must find ways to ensure that more American students can access a high-quality postsecondary program that offers them the education and training they need to succeed after school. As part of President Obama's plan to make a higher education more affordable for American families, the Department of Education (ED) has worked to accelerate innovative strategies that provide educational opportunities for students while promoting transparency and building a strong evidence base for high standards of quality and positive student outcomes.

Increasingly, innovative models of education and training are emerging outside of the traditional higher education sector, including immersive training programs like intensive "bootcamp"-style training, personalized online programs, MOOCs (massively open online courses), short-term certificate programs, and others. Some of these new models may provide more flexible and more affordable credentials and educational options than those offered by traditional higher institutions, and are showing promise in preparing students with the training and education needed for better, in-demand jobs. And students are taking notice. For example, in 2015 alone, coding bootcamps are expected to grow the number of students they graduate by 240 percent, rising from 6,740 in 2014 to over 16,000. The Georgetown Center for Education and Workforce estimates that men with non-degree certificates in computer/information services earned $72,000 per year, which is on average more than 72% of men with more traditional associate's degrees.

For students seeking access to these new models of education, there are two key barriers: financial aid and information about quality that can help students make a confident choice about where to go. Because many of these new models fall outside of the traditional college accreditation system, students who wish to participate in them do not have access to federal financial aid. Under current law, federal financial aid goes overwhelmingly to students in traditional degree programs, while little is eligible to go to low-income students seeking to attend non-traditional or non-credit programs that may be a better fit for them. Additionally, since these providers are not within the purview of traditional accrediting agencies, we have no generally accepted means of gauging their quality.

To begin addressing both of these barriers, the U.S. Department of Education today launched the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) program under the Experimental Sites Initiative, which tests the effectiveness of statutory and regulatory flexibility for postsecondary institutions that disburse federal financial aid. Specifically, the EQUIP program will evaluate the effectiveness of granting title IV student aid flexibility to partnerships between innovative postsecondary institutions and non-traditional providers. Postsecondary institutions are invited to apply beginning today; more information about the program can be found in the Federal Register notice.

Through the EQUIP program, ED seeks to learn about these new models and evaluate the effectiveness of non-traditional providers in helping students achieve educational and employment outcomes as well as and explore new methods ways to measure quality. The goals of EQUIP 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.

Who is eligible to participate?
Currently, colleges and universities offering federal student aid are barred 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; this experiment will waive that limit, allowing universities to curate coherent programs of study from one or more providers of postsecondary education and training. This increased flexibility will enable colleges and universities to expand innovative partnerships and educational programs in order to increase access for students, and will allow the Department to evaluate whether these programs promote positive student outcomes. The institution's accrediting agency must determine that this new program falls within the institution's accreditation.

To participate in EQUIP, institutions must propose a partnership with at least one non-traditional provider of education and a third-party Quality Assurance Entity (QAE) to independently review and monitor the quality of the program. The QAE will also hold the non-traditional provider and postsecondary institution accountable for student outcomes. QAEs will be required to develop new ways to assess the quality of these programs along several dimensions, including:

  • The claims they make about learning
  • The evidence they have to support those claims, including assessments
  • Student outcomes, including learning and employment

Further details on the role and requirements for the QAE are included in the Federal Register notice published today.

It is important to note that the Department will only provide access to title IV aid for a limited number of programs that the Department identifies as outstanding applicants to the experiment. Specifically, five broad sets of criteria 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

Example student who could benefit from the EQUIP program
A single parent working in an administrative job may be looking to earn credits toward a degree in the emerging field of data science, which will bring her new career opportunities. Instead of enrolling in a more traditional college or university degree program, she could enroll in a college's EQUIP program, in which faculty curate a set of massive open online courses (MOOCs) within a data science sequence. Over a three-month period, the student could earn a certificate in data science and 12 semester hour credits that can be transferred into an academic program at that college or another.

Building on Innovation
The EQUIP initiative is the latest in a series of projects that ED has undertaken to stimulate innovation in higher education. In 2011, the Department launched an experiment to allowing institutions to provide students with access to Pell grants for short-term vocational programs that meet local/regional workforce needs. In 2014, the Department announced three experimental sites to support competency-based education programs allowing participants to move through coursework based on mastery of skills and to leverage knowledge and skills gained anywhere toward credential completion. Moreover, in the last two years, ED has awarded $135 million in First in the World grants to colleges, universities, and organizations to develop and validate evidence-based innovations that expand access, affordability, and success to disadvantaged communities and populations.

How to Apply
To be considered for participation in the EQUIP initiative, postsecondary institutions must submit a letter of interest to the Department of Education, following the procedures outlined in the Federal Register notice. To receive priority consideration, letters of interest must be received no later than December 14, 2015.