“While America has some of the best colleges and universities in the world, as a system, we’re still catching up to the needs of today’s college student … who may be a 24-year-old returning veteran, a 36-year-old single mother or a part-time student juggling work and college,” Ted Mitchell, undersecretary of education, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “The faces we picture as our college hopefuls can’t be limited by any factor, including inflexible or unaffordable higher education options.”
Mitchell said the department anticipates the eight teams should have their proposed programs ready for final approval this fall. Providers expect to enroll about 1,500 students in the first year. Costs will vary by program, though students eligible for Pell grants, which cover up to $5,815 in tuition, books and fees, will be able to use the award to knock out the full cost of some programs, according to the department. Mitchell said the department plans to allocate no more than $5 million in Pell grants in the first year of the program.
As a part of the experiment, the department will waive a ban on colleges in the federal financial aid program outsourcing half of their instruction and course content to organizations without any accreditation. Still, the eight participating teams will be reviewed and monitored by independent, third parties for quality assurance. The monitors, including the American Council on Education and Quality Matters, will assess the management of the programs as well as whether students land jobs.
“Our role is … to ensure students’ experience and outcomes are meeting the claims of the program, students interests are protected and the federal financial aid award is merited,” said Deb Adair, executive director of Quality Matters, the company selected to oversee the partnership between Thomas Edison State College and Study.com. “The end goal is to provide the criteria and transparency for the program to demonstrate how well it can meet rigorous standards and how it can improve on the measures that define and support student success.”
The department selected a mix of public and private universities to participate in the pilot, including the University of Texas at Austin and Northeastern University in Boston. Each school is partnering with companies that offer a variety of training in manufacturing, coding, programming and business administration.
Northeastern, for instance, is teaming up with General Electric to offer an accelerated bachelor of science in advanced manufacturing. GE will provide hands-on training, while the university will co-develop the curriculums and provide support services. The degree will initially be open to GE employees in the spring, with plans to extend enrollment to the broader population, explained Northeastern President Joseph Aoun.
“We are facing a shortage of people skilled in advanced manufacturing, and in order to bring manufacturing back to the United States, we need to focus on the advanced aspects that requires skills, that requires expertise,” Aoun said on the call with reporters. “Higher education cannot keep doing things the way it has for the past 300 years. We have to integrate the classroom experience with the world experience and the work experience.”
The Dallas County Community College District, meanwhile, is working with online course provider StraighterLine to offer associate degrees to students with either a business or criminal justice concentration. The programs are aimed at students with some college experience who have yet to complete their degree. Participants will be able to earn up to three quarters of the credits needed to graduate through StraighterLine.
The education and philanthropic communities have been buzzing about the need to deliver credentials that employers recognize and value. Companies often use a bachelor’s degree as a screening mechanism to identify people likely to have the skills they need, which critics say bars competent people from jobs for which they might otherwise qualify.
But some higher education experts worry that welcoming more private companies into the sector could result in the same problems that have emerged within for-profit colleges, which stand accused of delivering very little value for the billions of dollars they accepted in federal student aid. The pilot is designed to address those concerns with quality assurance monitors and insisting private companies partner with established colleges and universities.
The Obama administration is using its authority to create limited experiments in the deployment of federal student aid. Other recent experiments include extending Pell grants to high school students enrolled in college course and prison inmates.
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