The Obama administration has wisely recognized that traditional colleges and technical schools are not the preferred path of all students seeking a postsecondary education. A pilot program announced Wednesday seeks to close the funding gap for nontraditional programs by allowing their students to receive federal financial aid, which has long been prohibited by law. This effort smartly recognizes the need for flexibility in helping a new generation of workers get an education that leads to gainful employment.
Under the U.S. Education Department's Educational Quality Through Innovating Partnership Program, colleges and universities can partner with nontraditional education providers to connect students in those programs with access to federal financial aid. EQUIP targets education providers such as boot camp-style training programs, personalized online training programs, massively open online courses, and short-term certificate programs. Those programs are ineligible for federal financial aid now and out of reach for many low-income and minority students.
To unlock federal aid for students through EQUIP, accredited colleges and universities will have to partner with a nontraditional program and a third-party quality assurance entity that will hold the educational institutions accountable for student outcomes, including learning and employment. The pilot program will ultimately provide students with access to federal student aid, including Pell Grants, direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans and campus-based funding programs.
The announcement comes as the for-profit college industry continues to reel from well-deserved scrutiny, including the forced closure this spring of Corinthian Colleges. The industry has been legitimately criticized for charging exorbitant tuition and producing graduates who are ill-prepared for the workplace and left with massive student debt. The schools often target veterans and low-income, nontraditional and minority students, and some use forceful recruiting and deceptive tactics to boost enrollment. The federal government has threatened to withhold federal aid from the schools that flout regulations and close schools that flagrantly violate the rules. But too many continue to slip through the cracks by exploiting loopholes in federal law. Sadly, thanks to aggressive lobbying efforts and inaction by lawmakers who refuse to hold the for-profits accountable, prospective students are left to examine institutions' track records on their own. The EQUIP program should give students another viable option.
Higher education should not be a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Innovative programs such as coding boot camps, which are expected to produce 240 percent more graduates in 2015 than they did last year, provide an excellent resource for students looking for training in competitive fields that yield high-paying jobs. Education officials are smart to move in this direction.
As the experiment begins, education officials should carefully monitor the quality of the nontraditional programs and the eventual employment status of their graduates. This kind of stewardship should protect taxpayer resources and students.