Remember EQUIP? Here's why you should keep paying attention.

By Ben Wohl

Last August, the Department of Education announced the eight pilot programs of the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) initiative. EQUIP aims to expand access to skill-based training and to encourage outcomes-based assessment and accreditation innovation in higher education.

The eight EQUIP programs each pair a non-college educational provider with a college or university to provide financial aid to low-income students who want to acquire in-demand job skills. Key attributes of EQUIP include the following:

  • The program waives the federal financial aid rule that prevents more than 50% of university course content and instruction from being outsourced to unaccredited third-party providers.
  • In its first year, the program is limited to 1,500 students and $17 million in funding (up to $5 million in Pell Grants and $12 million in federal loans).
  • Quality assurance entities (QAEs) are chosen by EQUIP schools to evaluate program success through non-traditional accreditation measures such as learning outcomes and job placement rates.

EAB’s interviews with administrators revealed a great deal of variability in how higher education institutions are handling their pilot programs. For instance, some schools are outsourcing almost everything to their non-traditional partner, including student services, curriculum development, and faculty hiring. However, other institutions are more involved, especially with curriculum development. Keep reading to learn more insights we gained from our interviews, as well as a look at the future of the initiative, and download the full overview of all eight programs below.

Download the full overview

Universities, non-traditional providers, and QAEs all hope EQUIP will address marketplace challenges

Regardless of content and format, EQUIP participants tend to see their programs as opportunities to improve market standing and better appeal to students.

In the short-term, non-traditional providers may gain legitimacy and validation from their association with established higher education institutions, as well as higher profiles from marketing and PR efforts.

In the long-term, non-traditional providers may secure a stable federal revenue stream that will both improve financial sustainability and grant access to new student audiences.

Universities, on the other hand, aim to become better at providing high-demand skills to a broader array of students and more effective at outcomes-based program evaluation.

Learn more about how your institution can launch shorter-form credentials

Finally, quality assurance entities gain legitimacy and experience in rating educational programs. For instance, one school noted that their QAE was conducting its assurance pro-bono to gain an early-mover advantage if outcomes-based accreditation becomes the industry standard.

Slow accreditors and unclear federal guidance delay program launches

EQUIP’s potentially slow accreditation processes and the Department of Education’s lack of guidance on success metrics have delayed program launches across the board.

In fact, EAB interviews found that many institutions are still unclear about how the Department of Education will define “outcomes-based success.” This opacity over core metrics has led at least one institution to further delay its EQUIP program’s launch.

Many commentators and universities expected EQUIP programs to start launching early in 2017. However, since traditional college and university accreditors, in addition to the QAEs, need to sign off, many program launches have been delayed anywhere from six months to one and a half years.

Despite mixed expert reactions, Trump is likely to expand EQUIP

So far, higher education researchers ranging from those at the Center for American Progress to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce are split on EQUIP’s long-term implications. Generally, experts have applauded the goal of expanding job training access for low-income students and testing outcomes-based evaluation metrics. However, many groups, particularly the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, have raised concerns that if quality standards for EQUIP programs are not upheld and attained, it could usher in another era of federal financial aid going to ineffective, for-profit entities.

The Trump era: What may change, and what won’t

Whiteboard Advisors’ November 2016 post-election research study, “Education Insider Post-Election Analysis,” found that a majority of congressional staff, federal officials, and other D.C. policymakers believe that the Trump administration is likely to further expand financial support to students attending unaccredited providers. EQUIP might serve as the model for how this could be implemented. Even though the program started under a Democratic administration, Republican states’ efforts to promote public-private education partnerships and outcomes-based evaluations suggest EQUIP will appeal to the new administration too. However, neither Trump nor his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has made any official statement on the future of the program.  

The COE Forum will continue to monitor EQUIP closely

While the EQUIP initiative’s future remains mired in the same uncertainty as most other higher education policy, colleges and universities, accreditors, and especially alternative education providers are watching these eight pilot programs closely for stories of success and new models for partnership. The COE Forum will continue to keep its membership apprised of any updates to existing EQUIP pilots, and any developments related to the administration’s approach to the program. In the meantime, take a look at the eight pilot programs below.

Download the full overview

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