Americans collectively hold over $US1 trillion in student loans.
Until now, the federal government has offered money only for accredited post-secondary education programs, which are deemed worthy by accreditation boards that look at everything from a school’s faculty to its student support services and its curriculum.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reports, the Education Department will announce a pilot program to explore providing loans for nontraditional, alternative forms of higher education — think coding boot camps, MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses), certificate programs, and some forms of corporate training.
Courses like these aren’t accredited, so the Education Department will look at alternative forms of “quality assurance.” Students who enroll in courses approved by the Department will be eligible for loans and student aid.
Inside Higher Ed reports that the program, called “Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP),” will initially be limited in scope to applications from fewer than 10 schools.
Sceptics of the proposal to offer loans for nontraditional higher ed argue that offering aid to programs that haven’t been accredited in the traditional way leads to a lack of accountability, a complaint that has felt ever-more urgent this year in the wake of financial investigations surrounding for-profit colleges.
Earlier this year, for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges was shut down over allegedly predatory practices, and made the news as 100 students refused to pay back their student loans.
The University of Phoenix — the largest for-profit college system in the US — was recently suspended from recruiting students from the military while under investigation for potentially predatory practices. Peter Wylie of Gradible points out that 81% of the University’s revenue is from US Student Aid, and 74% of that is from student loans specifically.
Accreditation isn’t a foolproof system. US News & World Report writes that some institutions appear to be accredited through “accreditation mills” online, which supply a school with credentials using a minimum standard of evaluation, and don’t hold the same weight as a more reputable board — not that students are always aware of the distinction.
Federal assistance or not, alternative forms of education are increasingly popular.
MarketWatch reports data from trade publication Course Report finding that in 2015, about 16,000 students are expected to graduate from coding boot camps, compared with about 6,700 last year. With the programs priced at $US10,000-$US20,000, many of these students take out loans through private lenders in order to attend.
Data gathered from 10 coding boot camps by online lender Earnest, as reported by Wired, finds the average coding student owes about $US30,000 in debt before even enrolling, and about half of that is student loans.
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