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Feds Announce Initiative to Boost Low-Income Students' Access to Higher Ed.

The U.S. Department of Education has announced that it will allow students to apply for federal aid to enroll in "non-traditional" training programs that partner with colleges and universities, as part of a broader effort to increase their ability to enroll in higher education.

The department invited eight institutions of higher education to participate in the Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) experiment, along with organizations ranging from online educational programs and computer coding courses to General Electric.

With the changing demographics of students in higher education who often don't come directly from high school, it's important for the Education Department and others to ensure that various student groups are served appropriately and provided skills they need to get jobs after graduation, said Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, who works on higher education issues at the department. 

This is one of several different initiatives by President Barack Obama's administration to alter policies impacting college access. Last year, it announced a pilot program extending Pell Grants to high school students who enroll in certain programs. And, it also made changes to the federal student loan application process  designed to make the process easier. EQUIP itself was also announced last year.

Skills, Credentials, Manageable Debt

The structure of student aid through these partnerships will differ between programs, Mitchell said, and it's not a blank check for students when it comes to the amount and use of federal aid dollars. Pell Grants will cover some of the cost at all of the programs, but not all of the costs at all of the programs. The first-year cost in terms of Pell Grants will be capped at $5 million—students in some cases will have to borrow money for program costs, Mitchell noted.

At the same time, he stressed that there will be accountability on the back end—for example, students will receive tuition refunds if they are unable to find jobs after completing the program.

"We want to make sure students are leaving these programs with the skills and credentials they signed up for, and with manageable student debt," Mitchell said.

While the ultimate focus is on providing these students with desireable skills in the workforce, Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern University in Boston which is partnering with General Electric, stressed that his university won't take a back seat to GE when it comes to academics under the EQUIP experiment. 

"We are going to be responsible for the learning, the teaching, and the oversight of the whole process," Aoun said.

In addition, each of the eight partnerships will be overseen by a "quality assurance entity" to ensure that the programs remain on track. They will monitor stats like graduation rates and cost per credit.

As the invitees to participate in EQUIP, the colleges and universities, along with the training programs, will set up their education programs and then submit them to the department for final approval. This isn't a large-scale experiment in higher education, not yet any way: In the first year, these partnerships will involve about 1,800 students total, Mitchell said. Colleges and universities will be the "banker" when it comes to handling student loans for these new partnerships, Mitchell said, although he didn't provide extensive details about how the financial aid will be handled. 

Here are the eight colleges and universities, along with their respective alternative providers and quality assurance groups, that are taking part in EQUIP:

Institution: Colorado State University Global Campus (Greenwood Village, CO)
Non-traditional provider: Guild Education
Quality assurance entity: Tyton Partners

Institution: Dallas Community College System (Dallas, Texas)
Non-traditional provider: StraighterLine
Quality assurance entity: CHEA Quality Platform

Institution: Marylhurst University (Marylhurst, Oregon)
Non-traditional provider: Epicodus
Quality assurance entity: Climb

Institution: Northeastern University (Boston, Massachusetts)
Non-traditional provider: General Electric
Quality assurance entity: American Council on Education (ACE)

Institution: SUNY Empire State College (Saratoga Springs, New York)
Non-traditional provider: The Flatiron School
Quality assurance entity: American National Standards Institute (ANSI)

Institution: Thomas Edison State College (Trenton, NJ)
Non-traditional provider: Study.com
Quality assurance entity: Quality Matters

Institution: University of Texas - Austin (Austin, TX)
Non-traditional provider: MakerSquare
Quality assurance entity: Entangled Solutions and Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico, LLP

Institution: Wilmington University (New Castle, Delaware)
Non-traditional provider: Zip Code Wilmington
Quality assurance entity: Hacker Rank


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