Government Initiative Provides Low-Income Students Greater Access to Higher Education Via Nontraditional Means

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The share of jobs requiring some postsecondary education is expected to increase rapidly over the next decade, with 11 of the 15 fastest-growing occupations projected to call for some education beyond high school. To provide more low-income American students access to higher education and better career opportunities, the U.S. Department of Education invited eight colleges and universities to participate in its Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) program.

An experimental pilot program, EQUIP offers eligible students federal financial aid to pay for a limited number of educational and career- focused programs that partner colleges and universities with nontraditional, for-profit education providers. The federal government will give $17 million in financial aid to students in 2017 through the program.

The goal of EQUIP is to promote and measure college access, affordability, and student outcomes in nontraditional programs including coding boot camps, MOOCs (massive online open courses), and personalized online programs. The hope is that the initiative will provide students greater skills, knowledge, and training to better prepare them for future employment.

EQUIP partners include General Electric and several coding schools and software development organizations, as well as online and alternative learning platforms. Through the initiative,
they are working to make education and training more flexible by offering students more affordable options
than have been traditionally offered at higher education institutions. An independent quality-assurance entity will monitor each partnership to assess the management of programs and student outcomes, including placement rates and student satisfaction.

One institution selected to participate in EQUIP is the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). Through the TEXAS Extended Campus and the Center for Lifelong Engineering Education, UT Austin is partnering with coding and software boot camp school MakerSquare to offer a 13-week certificate program in web development to prepare students for careers as mid-level software engineers. The university hopes to host seven courses during the first year and serve a total of 120 to 200 students.

“UT Austin must play a critical role in expanding access to high-quality educational programs for students outside traditional degree programs [who] could benefit from [those] that more directly prepare them for gainful employment,” says Stephen Walls, PhD, deputy director of the TEXAS Extended Campus at UT Austin.

Some educators, however, doubt the efficacy of short-term coding boot camps, arguing that these experiences.— which typically last 13 weeks — are not long enough to train people to become software engineers. They believe these camps are better suited for retraining working professionals.

Other EQUIP participants include Colorado State University’s global campus, Dallas Community College System, Marylhurst University, Northeastern University, SUNY Empire State College, Thomas Edison State University, and Wilmington University. Applications were evaluated on several criteria, including innovative approach; equity and access, especially for low-income students; the proposed quality-assurance process; affordability; and the strength of proposed student and taxpayer protections.

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