Program Innovation

Higher Ed Mixology: Tasting the Eclectic EQUIP Cocktail

Here’s the recipe for this season’s hottest cocktail: The Department of Education’s (ED) Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP):
  • Select several established and successful public and private universities
  • Add a dollop of coding bootcamps and alternative education partners
  • Mix in a dash of the 11th ranked private company on the Fortune 500 index
  • Blend in several widely recognized quality assurance (QA) entities
  • Stir in a ranking service for software coders, an alternative education funder, a certified public accounting firm, and a few consulting groups
  • Shake well and serve chilled over close to $17 million of grants and Federal Title IV student aid
As ED’s latest experiment in higher education innovation, this recipe has tremendous potential to foster advances in both program design and QA practices. While EQUIP may lead to some valuable insights in these areas, several questions remain. For example, what can this eclectic mixture reveal about how traditional institutions can successfully partner with new, innovative program providers? What unforeseen insights will emerge about the ability of vastly different types of entities to provide quality assurance? Ultimately will EQUIP whet our thirst for innovation, or leave us with a bitter aftertaste? Given the recent excitement around EQUIP, we thought it would be timely and relevant to dive a bit deeper into this new cocktail.

Not Just Another Higher Ed Innovation Lab

Launched in late 2015 as part of ED’s Experimental Sites Initiative, EQUIP is designed to “promote and measure college access, affordability, and student outcomes.” To achieve this goal, EQUIP is testing the efficacy of new partnerships between established institutions and non-traditional programs as well as alternative methods of providing outcomes-driven QA. A carefully controlled allotment of Title IV funds will incentivize these partnerships and expand access to innovative workforce readiness programs such as coding bootcamps for underserved students. The rise of coding bootcamps exemplifies a workforce readiness effort that falls outside conventional higher education. Well-resourced students with existing degrees and access to capital have driven much of its growth. Before EQUIP, these programs were unable to utilize federal financial aid, restricting access for low-income candidates. Federal regulations also prevented accredited institutions from collaborating with non-accredited providers for more than 50% of the content and instruction within a program. ED has waived this rule for EQUIP, enabling accredited institutions to build entirely new programs with these alternative providers. EQUIP’s scope, however, suggests a healthy dose of caution from ED, highlighting the intent of its experimental design: to measure the ability of partnerships between conventional and non-traditional education providers to reach under-served student populations. The first round of the experiment will impact no more than 1,500 students across eight partnerships, and leverage only $17 million in Title IV Federal aid, a tiny portion of available monies.

Current EQUIP Partnerships

Marylhurst University Epicodus Climb
Colorado State University – Global Campus Guild Education Tyton Partners
University of Texas, Austin MakerSquare Entangled Solutions
Dallas County Community College StraighterLine Council for Higher Education Quality Platform
Wilmington University ZipCode HackerRank
Thomas Edison University Study.com Quality Matters
Northeastern University General Electric American Council for Education
SUNY Empire State Flatiron School American National Standards Institute
The eight selected programs prioritize upskilling students in software coding and business domains. Four of the eight focus on coding and software development, and three on business administration or criminal justice. An outlier is the partnership between Northeastern University and General Electric (GE), through which up to 50 GE employees will complete an accelerated Bachelor’s of Science in Advanced Manufacturing. While these workforce sectors have strong forecasts for employment and median income, we wonder whether future iterations of EQUIP can expand to other domains. Could future rounds of EQUIP funding be devoted to partnerships in other high growth areas, such as continuing medical education or cyber-security?

Wide-Ranging Quality Assurance

Given EQUIP’s unorthodox mix of established institutions and alternative providers, quality assurance is important. Adding to the breadth of the experiment, ED required the inclusion of a third party QA entity within each partnership. ED describes this component of the EQUIP experiment as an attempt to assess the viability of “outcomes-based” QA processes. More surprising, is the range and variety of these quality assurance entities. At one end of the quality assurance spectrum we note the participation of the American Council on Education (ACE), Quality Matters, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). These represent established arbiters of higher education best practices and accountability. Quality Matters, for example, brings considerable experience to EQUIP, having previously certified more than 6,000 courses, from associate to doctoral degree levels. At the other end of the spectrum, we see a collection of potentially capable, but untested organizations and companies tasked with significant quality assurance requirements. HackerRank, a ranking platform for software engineers and coders, will be the QA entity for the partnership between Wilmington University and ZipCode in which students will complete a 12-week software development bootcamp and then enter into local apprenticeships or entry-level jobs. This was by design. The initial EQUIP request for proposal in October 2015 noted that a core objective of this experiment is to measure how QA entities would “determine the quality of a program of study through a set of largely outcome-based questions, rigorous and timely monitoring, and accountability processes.” It will be revealing to see, at the very least, how for-profit companies such as HackerRank, Climb (non-traditional student financing) or Entangled Solutions (higher education consultants) fulfill this QA objective.

A Great Taste or the Ingredients for Another Hangover?

Since the August 2016 announcement of the EQUIP awards, ED has stated that each institution’s existing national or regional accreditor will still have ultimate oversight over each partnership. In this context, we see EQUIP as having the potential to provide a safe and contained space for program and QA innovation. This will still require vigilance and monitoring. At a minimum, we would hope for significant transparency from ED on the partnership’s QA entity performance metrics. While there are ample reasons to applaud the EQUIP experiment, we hope several questions will come into greater focus as the projects move forward:
  • Can ED effectively evaluate new models of QA, while also assessing the efficacy of partnerships between traditional schools and innovative program providers?
  • Will non-traditional QA entities, embedded in several of these partnerships, be able to design and deliver accurate assessments and measurements?
  • Can non-traditional QA entities effectively respond to the inevitable unanticipated complexities of knitting diverse educational programs together?
  • Will the sample size of only 1,500 students across eight projects provide enough evidence for further rounds of EQUIP funding and access to federal monies?
All eyes will be on these outcomes and others as this experiment unfolds. Chances are, a few sips of the EQUIP experiment may whet your thirst for more of this eclectic cocktail. As is the case with most mixed drinks, however, it will be advisable to sip slow, consider the ingredients, and assess impact before ordering another round.

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