Nontraditional Programs Are Now Eligible for Federal Financial Aid

Posted By Eliana Osborn on November 10, 2015 at 9:34 am
Nontraditional Programs Are Now Eligible for Federal Financial Aid

You can take higher education classes wherever you want, but getting transferrable credit (or being able to use federal financial aid dollars to pay for those classes) is a whole other story.  Schools have to be accredited to be eligible for federal loan dollars, which is the incentive for small and large programs to take the steps necessary for accreditation.

Now, that may be starting to change, albeit very slowly.  The Department of Education recently announced that it will allow grant and loan dollars to be spent on nontraditional programs—including MOOC courses, boot camps, and short-term certificates. These programs don’t have to be run through colleges; other third party management will be allowed.  Until now, if a student wanted to take three online courses to get a micro-credential in networking, she wouldn’t be able to use federal money to pay for it.

This will be part of a pilot project called the Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI), inviting comment through December, to measure the success and rigor of students studying through these unaccredited programs.  If the DOE moves forward in 2016, they will take on an expanded field of institutions to monitor.

According to the DOE notice explaining ESI, the program has three goals

  • To encourage increased innovation in higher education in order to learn whether those partnerships increase access to innovative and effective educational programs, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds
  • To assess quality assurance processes appropriate for non-traditional providers and programs
  • To identify ways to protect students and taxpayers from risk in this emerging area of post-secondary education

Nontraditional boot camps and credential programs are one of the highest growth areas in post-secondary education.  They fulfill a niche in the market as a way to get trained for jobs without having to spend four years as a full-time student.  The problem thus far has been regulation – without accreditation, a lengthy process for schools, no one can be sure which programs actually provide value to students.  By stepping into the realm of nontraditional education, the DOE may be able to bring clarity to these cutting-edge programs.

One school that will benefit if ESI is continued past the trial phase is Lynn University in Florida.  They’ve teamed up with General Assembly, a multi-campus non-accredited educational institution focused on entrepreneurs and start-ups.  Lynn students can do a study abroad program, attending daily sessions for sixteen weeks at either of the two GA campuses in the United States.  They’ll earn fifteen credits—a full semester’s worth—while getting industry-specific job skills.  Those credits can be applied to a Lynn University degree.

This specific boot camp credit program is expensive – over $25,000 with tuition and living expenses.  To be able to use federal student loans or grants to pay for such an experience would make it available to a much larger range of students.  Ten day versions will also be available, including in London and Australia GA locations, for $3,000.  Whether students feel that they get valuable skills from these pricy opportunities remains to be seen.

Collaborations like the one between Lynn University and General Assembly will continue to proliferate, matching student skills with what jobs want from new hires.  With more boot camp programs on the horizon, changes in how they are paid for will continue to be a topic of consideration.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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