The Allure of the New New Thing (Part 1)Barmak Nassirian | Director of Federal Relations and Policy Analysis, AASCU
“I think a new, different kind of bowling should be “carpet bowling.” It’s just like regular bowling, only the lanes are carpet instead of wood. I don’t know why we should do this, but my God, we’ve got to try something!”
Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey
The October 15 Federal Register carried a notice of the most lucrative science fiction competition—potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the lucky winners—ever conducted by the federal government. Remarkably, the award program is not run by a federal science agency, but by the Department of Education, which will select the winning entries based on its sole discretion. Unfortunately and even more remarkably, the department may well be the only participant in the process not to grasp that the entries it will judge will, in fact, be works of fiction, not narrative descriptions of verifiable reality.
The notice in question is a turgid bureaucratic invitation for institutions of higher education to participate in what the department describes as an “experiment” to see whether partnerships between institutions and innovative “non-traditional” (i.e., ineligible) providers of education and training might broaden access and contain costs without putting students and taxpayers at risk. Certainly, as anyone who has paid any attention to higher education policy would readily attest, the Department of Education has had a miserable run—under Republican and Democratic administrations—with gatekeeping, cost-containment and innovation. The department has yet to sort out the mess created by innovative programs at venues like Corinthian, ITT and EDMC. Beyond singlehandedly funding the widespread consumer fraud that the for-profit sector has generally adopted as its business model, the department has also helplessly presided over the inexorable tuition inflation that afflicts American higher education with nothing but words of admonition in its policy toolkit. What’s more, it has neither legal authority nor programmatic competence in matters related to curriculum or instruction, whether old or new.
Nevertheless, encouraged by the players it apparently views as its main political constituents—foundations, policy entrepreneurs, techno-utopians and disruptive innovators—the department has been convinced to put what it doesn’t know about gatekeeping together with what it doesn’t know about cost-containment and innovation, and embark on an initiative that is very likely to feed fraud, prove inflationary, and crowd out market-validated innovation in favor of government-anointed winners.
The policy pretext for the department’s proposal is the assertion that federal student aid shouldn’t just go to entities known as (or at least pretending to be) schools, and that there are alternative learning venues that produce impressive labor-market outcomes in shorter times and at lower costs. It is, of course, true that some non-Title IV learning opportunities are indeed less expensive and more beneficial for their participants than many traditional programs. Coding bootcamps—short-term programs offered by for-profit companies that train individuals for entry-level software engineer positions—are the current poster children of such alternative programs, although every era has had its version of employment retooling programs. Bootcamps cost around $10-$20K, take only a few months to complete, and tout placement rates of better than 95 percent, in jobs with six-figure salaries no less! Clearly, there is little not to like here.
In the abstract, there is no structural reason why such learning venues could not navigate the existing Title IV program participation framework and become eligible, qua short-term certificates, for appropriate types of federal student aid. The primary reason why the most impressive of these programs have not sought Title IV eligibility may be their realization that the procedural costs of participating in federal student aid could only be justified by a vast expansion of their enrollments, and that such an enrollment shift would fundamentally undermine the very features that make the programs successful.
Two essential characteristics of today’s bootcamps are worth noting. First, they cater to sophisticated, highly motivated consumers. They enroll older students (their average student is 28 years old) and most of their students are college graduates with a few years of actual employment experience under their belts. These demographic characteristics—well prepared students with proven track records of past success—are critical features of the demand side of the transaction. Second, because the programs have to rely on private funding (either personal or borrowed), they must be of high enough quality to convince risk-averse individuals—students and investors—to let go of their hard-earned money to cover their costs. This validation by the private market addresses the supply side of the transaction, which is the other half of the educational process. Lo and behold, well prepared students participating in high-quality, in-demand programs end up graduating and getting good jobs! (Who knew? As you will see, apparently no one at the Department.)
The Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) “experiment” is the Department’s takeaway from the bootcamp phenomenon. (If you are bothered that “EQUIP” is an ill-fitting acronym for the program’s chosen name, rest assured that it faithfully reflects the level of craftsmanship evident in the experiment’s design.) The knee-jerk instinct of seeking to universalize the bootcamp model and deploy it in support of socially laudable goals is understandable. It would be absolutely fabulous if at-risk, underprepared, underserved, low-income students could access high-quality programs that would enable them to get six-figure salaries after three months of intensive study. A few minutes of thought, however, brings one back to reality: Yes, it would be wonderful, except that wishing doesn’t make it so, for the intrinsic reasons above. Amazingly, the Department is oblivious to this reality, and identifies “access to innovative and effective programs, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds” as one of its fundamental goals for the EQUIP experiment.
So much for realism on the demand side.
This is the first installment of a two-part series by Barmak Nassirian discussing some of the most significant concerns with the growing role of non-accredited education providers in the higher education marketplace. In the conclusion, Nassirian will outline the structural flaws EQUIP must navigate when it comes to regulation of education providers.
Author Perspective: Association