Innovation traction may be tough in the last year of the Obama Administration, but you have to give the DoE credit for continuing to try to push the boat out. Three years ago, when we met with senior officials to broach the idea of Title IV funding for alternative pathways that produce micro-degrees, the response we got was rapid-eye blinking. And yet now, the Department is rolling out just that…well, a more measured version, but it’s a start. If you care about reinventing college, the thing to watch in early 2016 is who takes the DoE up on the offer. The concept is called EQUIP, or Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships. In a nutshell, EQUIP gives federal financial aid dollars to schools that partner with non-accredited providers (like boot camps and MOOCs) and who meet the DoE’s standards for serving low-income students. Applications were due December 14th, and up to 10 schools will be selected.

You might call this pilot initiative a mid-station on the road to redefining the degree and unbundling college from traditional Carnegie units. It was smart (and brave) of the Department to tiptoe into expansion of Title IV funding, given that the road is still littered with poorly served students of the for-profit “diploma mill” era. But this experiment is necessary given consumer demand and, frankly, the hesitancy of four-year universities to embrace rapidly changing career skills. To borrow Clayton Christensen’s concept, EQUIP invites sustaining innovation by allowing schools to keep the cash flow for themselves (as opposed to disruptive innovation), which might have invited any alternative, non-traditional program to apply directly. By requiring schools to come with a third-party quality assurance partner, the evaluation and oversight concerns that sullied the rise of many online for-profit programs is at least considered.

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This all reminds me of a comment Jake Schwartz, founder of General Assembly (perhaps the best known of the new digital job prep course providers), made at a convening of higher ed traditionalists that the Education Design Lab moderated. When asked if his company competes with universities, he said, “No, we don’t compete for your students, we retrofit them for the workforce after they graduate.”

That sparked a spirited debate about the role of the liberal arts degree. Jake is a supporter of the traditional coming-of-age college experience (and who isn’t?) but so many students are now questioning the value proposition and asking why we can’t get “critical thinking”, “meaning of life”, and “skills to be a full-stack designer” all in one degree. I’m still not sure what a full-stack designer is but I see signs up all over our co-working space looking to hire them. And the emails I get from General Assembly offer a three-month program and (nearly) guaranteed employment for a tuition price of $10,000.

“No, we don’t compete for your students, we retrofit them for the workforce after they graduate.”

Jake Schwartz, founder of General Assembly

That’s where the DoE and the EQUIP experiment come in. Why can’t federal financial aid cover those learning experiences—is this not an access issue? A number of research outlets (such as Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce) point to the growing value of certificates and micro-credentials for employers and potential employees.

But when you look at who is accessing these programs, it’s not the people who need them most. According to a recent study, an estimated 16,000 students graduated from coding boot camp programs in 2015 alone. But most of them were college graduates who could afford the price tag: the average salary of pre-boot camp attendees is $45,000, and the course boosted their earnings to an average of $60,000-$80,000.

Hmm…can we get some of that value creation for community college and university students?  And still leave room for Shakespeare?

-Kathleen deLaski