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New Experimental Site Initiative Paves Way for Nontraditional Programs

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI). The ESI will allow a limited number of postsecondary academic institutions and nontraditional online course providers to apply for the ability to receive financial aid. This experiment will allow the department to test different ways of disbursing financial aid. The experiment will target MOOCs and other online certificate programs that are seeing a dramatic increase in use by students as the cost of traditional higher education and training continues to soar. 

While these online programs are not accredited by traditional accrediting agencies, the Department will also use this experiment to test the quality of the program content. This part of the experiment is called EQUIP, or Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships. Through EQUIP, the college or online provider partners with a quality assurance entity of their choosing. This entity, as stipulated in the experiment parameters, tracks student outcomes, including credentials earned and employment attained.

Stanton E.F. Wortham, faculty director of the Penn Online Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, sees the benefit of MOOC platforms like edX and Coursera because they have the opportunity to reach various populations of students.

While others see the benefit of different platforms for learning, there is a worry that the availability of aid will only increase the price of online nontraditional programs, therefore defeating their original purpose.  

The increased use of MOOCs and other platforms for e-learning can’t be denied. This year, it is reported that the use of MOOCs in corporate learning is expected to rise 28% over the next two years. Additionally, learning and development jumped from #8 to #3 as the most important talent challenges for major U.S. companies. 

The need for specialized skills and competencies is increasing—60% of U.S. businesses value “intangible assets” in their employees. Nontraditional programs may not be the right education or upskilling option for  everyone. However, the option of earning an online certificate in business technology for a single parent, or the option of earning an IT certification by a recently laid off mid-career worker holds exponential possibilities for our workforce. And, allowing these individuals to receive federal aid while earning these credentials can translate into lower loan amounts and a markedly higher return on investment. 

Jobs for the Future applauds the U.S. Department of Education on their continued effort to explore innovative education opportunities that can further educational and economic opportunity for all Americans. We are excited by this new Experimental Sites Initiative and look forward to the results the initiative will produce.