Feds Try Aid for Unorthodox College Programs

BOSTON—In an experiment backed by the federal government, Northeastern University and General Electric are offering a new manufacturing degree program to be taught primarily at the company’s work sites. Students will take online courses through the university, undergo training at a GE plant and earn a bachelor’s degree within three years.

The biggest twist: For the first time, students who enroll in that kind of partnership will be eligible for federal financial aid.

Under U.S. law, financial aid is prohibited for programs in which at least half of the instruction comes from “ineligible entities” outside the school, such as GE. But in a pilot project meant to help low-income students, the U.S. Education Department is opening financial aid to eight programs jointly offered by schools and companies.

“While America has some of the best colleges and universities in the world, as a system we’re still catching up to the needs of today’s new normal college student,” Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell told reporters, adding that the typical U.S. college student is no longer an 18-year-old, but a working adult.

In its first year, the project will offer up to $5 million in federal aid for students in eight programs chosen by the Education Department. The experiment’s goal is to prepare students for the growing number of jobs that require some level of higher education, but on terms that are flexible enough for working adults.

The experiment is being called EQUIP, short for Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships.

Among the programs chosen by the department, most are new partnerships between colleges and education companies, including four academies for computer coding.

The University of Texas at Austin, for example, is pairing with the coding boot camp MakerSquare to offer a 13-week certificate in web development.

Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey is working with the website Study.com to offer online bachelor’s degrees in business administration and liberal studies, to be completed at a student’s own pace through video courses.

At Northeastern, the new degree aims to combat what school officials say is a shortage of workers with advanced manufacturing skills. The program will launch next spring, starting with up to 50 General Electric employees as the first students. By fall 2017, the university hopes to expand the degree program to students across the U.S.

“In order to bring manufacturing back to the United States, we need to focus on the advanced aspects that require skills, that require expertise,” Northeastern President Joseph Aoun said.

The program will cost $10,000 a year without financial aid. Students with some college experience can complete it within a year and a half, school officials said.

Each of the partnerships will be assigned an independent organization to monitor their work and evaluate student incomes. The monitors include consulting firms and education advocacy groups. Ultimately, the Education Department will decide whether each partnership’s pilot was a success.

“It’s not enough to measure only access or simple enrollment,” Mitchell said, “we need to have a laser-like focus on outcomes.”

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