When he was just a senator from Illinois, Barack Obama ran for President on the platform that college should be affordable to anyone who wants to go.
Now that he holds the office, his approach has shifted ever so slightly. College should be affordable, yes, but also, not everyone should have to go to a four-year college to land a job.
A new Department of Education program focused on skills training aims to address that second part. Announced last year, the so-called Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships program will offer federal student aid to students enrolled at non-traditional institutions like coding bootcamps and skills-training programs.
Today, the Department of Education revealed the eight organizations and educational institutions with programs that will be covered as part of the EQUIP pilot program. For now, the programs are located on both coasts and in Texas. They include bootcamps like The Flatiron School, as well as newly launched training programs from companies like General Electric. The Department of Education chose the programs from dozens of applications, and each organization will partner with an established, accredited college or university. Meanwhile, third-party quality assurance partners have signed up to monitor students’ results.
The goal of EQUIP is to help low-income students get by in an economy that increasingly demands some type of advanced degree or certification. Around 1,500 students will be eligible for $5 million in Pell Grants during the first year. Though that will help pay for these classes, some will also need to take out student loans or pay partially out of pocket.
“Higher education has never mattered so much to so many as a means of social mobility, as an engine of our economy, and a way for individuals to better themselves and move into the middle class,” said Department of Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell on a press call today. But while the United States still boasts some of the top colleges in the world, he added, “We’re still catching up to the needs of today’s new normal college student.”
Lawmakers are currently going through something of an evolution on the question of higher education. While some, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, are still beating the drum about making four-year college free for all, others, like President Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, have begun talking up alternative education, and pushing the idea that not everyone needs a four-year degree.
During an economic speech just last week, Clinton told a crowd gathered in Michigan that by the year 2020, half of the available jobs in the United States won’t require a college degree.
“We’ve got to reverse what has become a commonplace view, which is everybody needs to go to college,” she said. “There are really good jobs for people right now, and there will be more in the future, if you get the skills in high school, at community college, in an apprenticeship, or other training program.”
Clinton hasn’t been the only one hyping these training programs. Sen. Marco Rubio was also a major proponent of skills-based training during his primary bid, telling a crowd in Wisconsin last year, “I want to be the vocational education president.”
“I do not understand for the life of me why we became a society that told young Americans that trade schools and vocational training are for kids that weren’t smart enough to go to college,” he said.
It’s a rare intersection on the Venn diagram of electoral politics. And yet, it’s not wholly without controversy. The Department of Education, Mitchell says, has been extremely “circumspect” in the roll out of this program, because, he points out, not all training programs are created equal. Stories abound of students graduating from coding bootcamps only to find themselves out several thousand dollars and jobless. The metric of success for the EQUIP pilot programs will be whether they can actually land students in jobs when the classes end.
The Department of Education has put some security measures in place for that specific purpose, Mitchell says. In some cases, students will receive a full refund if they don’t find a job. In others, the institution providing the training will no longer be allowed to participate.
“I want to be clear, with these and all higher education programs,” Mitchell said. “It’s not enough to measure only access or simple enrollment. We need to have a laser like focus on outcomes.”
For Adam Enbar, co-founder and president of Flatiron School, that type of oversight is crucial in order to take the type of education he’s offering mainstream. Flatiron already issues an annual report about how many of its students land jobs in technical fields after graduation, and he hopes EQUIP will encourage others to do the same.
Enbar says both students and the government are right to be “very, very, very skeptical” of any for-profit educational institutions, including bootcamps. “We look friendlier than these big for-profit universities, but don’t look at us any differently. Be skeptical of us,” he says. “Reporting needs to be really rigorous and really transparent.”
According to Deb Adair, CEO of Quality Matters, which is one of the quality assurance groups that will be assessing these programs, “The jury is still out,” on how and when EQUIP will scale beyond this initial pilot program.
Of course, the task of expanding it may well fall to the next administration. While it seems to be in keeping with Clinton’s vision of the future of education, Donald Trump has alternately said he’d both eliminate the Department of Education and cut it “way way down.” So there’s that.