Five considerations about accelerated learning for the next administration

Our next president will take office during a period of seismic change across the education landscape. Policymakers, students and employers increasingly question the cost — and return — on a college degree, as a profusion of new pathways from education-to-employment emerge.

Nearly 50 million adults in the U.S. have some kind of non-degree credential. And the relevance and number of non-degree credentials is only accelerating, as learners share what they know online and employers work to expand the talent pool and apply sophisticated analytics to find the right match.

It is no surprise, then, that the Clinton campaign has made non-traditional education a focal point of its tech and innovation agenda. But while the campaign’s platform presents some exciting developments for accelerated learning providers, it also raises important questions as students and policymakers navigate an unfamiliar landscape of new educational offerings:

  • How can (and should) government play a role in funding access to unaccredited providers?
  • What role can they play in helping employers meet demand and increase diversity in the workforce?
  • How can providers be held accountable for student outcomes?

Public policy holds great potential to accelerate the scale and impact of new models — but presents big risks if the next administration doesn’t get it right. Here are five big issues for the next administration to consider.

Who pays?

The Clinton campaign’s College Compact already includes $10 billion in federal funding for “promising new programs,” including accelerated learning. This proposal comes on the heels of recent efforts by the Obama Administration to pilot federal support for innovative educational models through initiatives like EQUIP and TechHire.

But expanding student aid eligibility isn’t the only way to expand access to non-traditional programs. The next administration would be well-served to consider whether direct subsidies or debt for students provides the best path to scale and impact for accelerated learning.

What role should programs like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act play? And is there a need for greater flexibility at the state and local level? Could tax reform allow working adults to make one-time, penalty-free deductions from retirement accounts for qualified educational expenditures? Or should we place greater emphasis on the role of employers, who might mitigate the risk to consumers and be in a better position to establish links between education, competencies and the demands of high-growth fields?

Measuring what matters

Expanding student aid for accelerated learning has the potential to be a risky move. And in the recent past, big, well-intentioned bets on non-traditional providers, have backfired. The unchecked growth of online learning stemmed, in part, from the failure to hold for-profit colleges accountable for outcomes — and an over-reliance on input-based measures of quality.

New models of education hold profound potential, and the federal government has a role (and responsibility) to play.

To assess the return on investments of non-traditional education programs, the next administration will need a better understanding of their outcomes. The good news is that, whereas traditional higher education has a broad economic and social mandate, the role of accelerated learning is often far more limited, making it simpler to quantify. How can policymakers get a better handle on the outcomes that providers claim? Can providers design more precise and verifiable measures of student outcomes and success? What role can accounting firms or other third-parties play in creating reliable, valid measures of student success?

Equity matters

An explosion of jobs in high-growth fields could have unintended consequences when it comes to calcifying diversity gaps and even exacerbating wage inequality. For better or worse, accelerated learning programs have demonstrated a relatively deep — but narrow — impact. The Clinton campaign is already showing a strong commitment to addressing diversity and equity gaps in the workplace, with a promise to increase support for minority students and those from disadvantaged communities.

The next administration should take a hard look at how well accelerated learning providers do when it comes to serving a diverse student population, and consider the complementary roles that next-generation assessments, skills-based hiring, bridge programs/on-ramps and other supportive services can play in realizing their vision.

The role of states and cities

Achieving scale while maintaining quality will require a delicate balance of regulatory flexibility, provider capacity and employer demand. The federal government has a role to play, but it can’t do it alone. States and cities are laboratories for education innovation and, in most cases, ahead of the curve when it comes to regulating non-traditional education providers.

State and local governments are also the most direct beneficiaries of including new providers in their education-employment ecosystem. For example, last year, California launched a task force (disclosure: I served on said task force) that took a close look at the regulation of high-tech training providers meeting critical workforce needs. States value the role of employers to judge the quality of providers and serve as a check on consumer protection. They’ve developed frameworks for providers to report outcomes. By examining the systems in place in these states, the next administration may identify models to replicate and areas to take a back seat where local government is leading the way.

The role of employers

It will be critical for the administration to ensure that employers have a seat at the table in policy discussions, and to support strong relationships between companies and education providers. Employers today spend $590 billion annually on formal and informal training, and even more on recruiting. Competency-based learning and skills-based hiring is beginning to take the guesswork out of finding the right pathway for learners.

But we have a long way to go to close the gap between educational opportunity and meaningful work. As technology continues to change the nature of our work, and employers grapple with increasing talent gaps, how do we think about the role of employers in the new landscape of educational providers?

The Clinton campaign’s support for accelerated learning is promising. New models of education hold profound potential, and the federal government has a role (and responsibility) to play in stimulating both quality and access. If the next administration moves too quickly, and without taking into consideration both the limitations and the potential of the space, it could trigger unintended consequences that set the field back, and produce missed opportunities for students.  If it gets it right, the economic and social impact will be profound — and just might help to make America great again.