Last week, the Department of Education announced a pilot program that will allow federal financial aid to be used toward coding bootcamps and similar “nontraditional” educational programs. The EQUIP (Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships) program will make it easier for students who rely on federal aid to access these in-demand educational programs. It will also provide an opportunity for the Department to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs and explore how to best monitor their quality.
In recent years, the prevalence and popularity of coding bootcamps and other nontraditional education programs have skyrocketed. According to the Education Department, coding bootcamps will graduate 240 percent more students in 2015 than they did in 2014, up from 6,740 to over 16,000 graduates.
This growth is not surprising—as the 21st century economy requires an increasing number of skilled workers, these institutions have risen to meet demand. The courses they offer help to alleviate current pipeline problems by channeling talented individuals into open, high-paying positions. General Assembly, one of the largest and most established bootcamps, reports a 99 percent placement rate in the field of study. And overall, 75 percent of coding bootcamp graduates are finding employment in their field of study and see a 44 percent increase in income according to a 2014 study.
However, there is still a significant roadblock in place: students of most of these nontraditional programs do not qualify for federal financial aid.
Imagine this: you’re a single parent working in an entry-level programming position. You’re looking to advance your career and have read about the emerging field of data science. You don’t have the resources—time or money—to attain a four-year degree in data science, but you find an interesting immersive “bootcamp” program that will train you in data science in just twelve weeks.
Even though this specialized program will train you at a fraction of the cost and duration of a traditional degree, in most cases you would not be able to obtain a federal student loan to help pay for it.
There are two main reasons for this: First, in order for an institution to be eligible for federal aid, it must be accredited. The accreditation process is complicated and ill-equipped to assess these sorts of innovative programs whose courses are constantly evolving based on market demand. As we’ve written before, nearly all modern coding bootcamps and schools lack accreditation.
Compounding the problem is a restriction on accredited colleges that limits the types of partnerships they can have with nontraditional education groups. For example, colleges offering federal aid cannot outsource more than 50 percent of any given program to third party institutions. So, if a resource-deprived community college wants to partner with an outside institution to offer a new program in an emerging field like data analytics, they can only do so if the outside institution offers less than 50 percent of the curriculum, assessment, or faculty.
These limited partnerships have been successfully attempted by several educational companies—General Assembly with Boca Raton's Lynn University; edX with Arizona State University; Galvanize with the the University of New Haven—but there is still huge untapped potential being stifled by overly-restrictive and outdated rules.
The EQUIP program aims to change this by loosening restrictions on schools that want to do innovative work with an alternative education provider. The program waives the existing 50 percent outsourcing prohibition for selected institutions under two conditions: a third party “Quality Assurance Entity” evaluates the outside partner and the college’s accreditor approves it.
While the scope of the pilot will be relatively small, this balanced step will allow the Department to evaluate a model that could later be expanded to cover any partnership between an accredited institution and a nontraditional program.
Right now the innovation economy desperately needs skilled individuals. Creative initiatives like the EQUIP program are a sensible way for the federal government to rise to meet this challenge and we hope to see more efforts like this one in the future.