Students at “non-traditional providers” of postsecondary education will have a chance to earn federal financial aid through experimental partnerships recently announced by the U.S. Department of Education. To participate, providers are expected to partner with “traditional” institutions that currently offer federal aid.

If you are interested, you should consider participating.

The Rise of the “Non-traditional Providers”

hand holding testtube.
US Dept of Ed’s financial aid experiment aims to help low-income students.

Sometimes called “alternative providers,” there has been much growth in opportunities for students to obtain knowledge and skills outside of the ivy-covered halls of colleges and universities. Examples of such providers include coding “bootcamps” (Seedpaths, Epicodus), StraighterLine, Khan Academy, and some MOOCs. There are many more.

ACE even created the Alternative Credit Project to connect students with colleges that may grant credit for courses offered by the providers. The site could be a bit more user friendly, but it’s a start.

Presidential candidates across the political spectrum have taken note. Hillary Clinton proposes increased access to federal aid for students in these programs. Marco Rubio goes farther: “Within my first 100 days, I will bust this cartel by establishing a new accreditation process that welcomes low-cost, innovative providers.” Not sure about our being a “cartel,” but he is referencing existing colleges and universities.

We all need to pay attention as there is much to laud and much to question with these providers. I suspect many in higher education do not have these emerging competitors on their radar. While this experimental program may ultimately be the camel’s nose under the tent, the growth of these providers is a story for another day.

The Department of Education’s EQUIP Program

A few days ago, Secretary Arne Duncan and the Department launched an “Experimental Sites Initiative” (ESI) to allow colleges to  partner with non-traditional provider. The ultimate goal is to increase federal aid for (and ultimately employment of) low income students:

“The Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) experiment is intended to encourage increased innovation in higher education through partnerships between the participating institutions and nontraditional providers in order to learn whether those partnerships increase access to innovative and effective educational programs, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds; assess quality assurance processes appropriate for non-traditional providers and programs; and identify ways to protect students and taxpayers from risk in this emerging area of postsecondary education.”

Colleges will partner with the providers to offer at least 50% and up to 100% of a program:

“The experiment outlined in this notice will allow participating institutions to provide title IV aid to otherwise eligible students pursuing a program of study for which 50 percent or more of the content and instruction is provided by one or more title IV-ineligible organizations (non-traditional providers). As part of the experiment, the Secretary will provide participating institutions with certain statutory and regulatory waivers…”

Students in a classroom from the mid -20th century. Teacher has a movie projector.
Ed Dept experiments with bringing new, innovative providers into traditional higher education.

The Fine Print

You can find the details for participating in EQUIP in the Federal Register. Meanwhile, some other details that you should know that I gathered off a call they held for interested parties on October 23:

  • On the call they really emphasized the need to serve low income students with this program. Other students may benefit, but the Department is focusing on this population.
  • It is not a grant with money attached, but merely a waiver of regulations.
  • BUT, not all regulations are waived. The waivers focus on current rules regarding minimum program length and satisfactory academic progress.
  • The college’s accreditation agency has to review the partnership “must determine and confirm in writing that the agreement meets its standards for contracting out education services.”
  • The partnership must identify a Quality Assurance Entity (QAE) that “is appropriately qualified to review and monitor such programs.” There are a long list of items that are included in the QAE’s assurance process, including: claims for learning, assessments and student work, outputs (disaggregated to identify low-income students), and management.
  • The partnership must decide if it will offer students: a) Pell Grants only or b) Pell Grants, loans, and campus-based forms of aid.
  • They plan to approve ten or fewer partnerships.
  • They hope that the partnerships selected will demonstrate diversity of geography and types of institutions.
  • The deadline for “letters of interest” is December 14. The Department does not expect that an applying partnership will have finalized every detail by that date. Promising applicants will be asked to submit a more complete proposal in the second phase of the competition.

There are many details to the proposal. Read the notice in the Federal Register. The Department is creating an FAQ. When the FAQ is published, I will attache the URL as a comment to this post. If you would like to submit a question or ask to receive more information, send an email to:

It’s a Start, But…

This is a start, but a cautious one. Our friends at Cooley, LLP wrote an analysis of the program in which the observed:  “Contrary to some press reports, the ESI is a very narrow program, reflecting longstanding concerns about abuse of the Title IV programs and a general discomfort within the Department over the growth of online programs and for-profit institutions.”

One concern I have is that the “regular and substantive interaction” requirement remains in place. That expectation severely limits many adaptive learning, self-paced programs, MOOCs, CBE programs, and others from participating. Additionally, I imagine that Gainful Employment requirements will kick-in for some institutions that are unfamiliar with complying with that regulation.


Even with the limitations, I urge WCET members (both institutions and “non-traditional providers”) to participate.

We gotta start somewhere.

Russ Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

Support our work.  Join WCET.


Photo credits:

Hand with testube:

Teacher with Projector by Public Record Office Victoria:


2 replies on “EQUIP: Ed Department Seeks Experimental College-Provider Financial Aid Partnerships”

Comments are closed.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,424 other subscribers

Archive By Month

Blog Tags

Distance Education (320)Student Success (300)Online Learning (231)Managing Digital Learning (224)State Authorization (219)WCET (215)U.S. Department of Education (209)Regulation (201)Technology (169)Digital Learning (151)Innovation (125)Teaching (121)Collaboration/Community (114)WCET Annual Meeting (105)Course Design (103)Access (99)Professional Development (98)SAN (92)Faculty (89)Cost of Instruction (88)Financial Aid (84)Legislation (83)Completion (74)Assessment (69)Instructional Design (68)Open Educational Resources (66)Accreditation (65)COVID-19 (64)SARA (64)Accessibility (63)Professional Licensure (63)Credentials (62)Competency-based Education (61)Quality (61)Data and Analytics (60)Diversity/Equity/Inclusion (59)Research (58)Reciprocity (57)WOW Award (51)Outcomes (47)Workforce/Employment (46)Regular and Substantive Interaction (43)Negotiated Rulemaking (42)Policy (42)Higher Education Act (41)Virtual/Augmented Reality (37)Title IV (36)Practice (35)Academic Integrity (34)Disaster Planning/Recovery (34)Leadership (34)Artificial Intelligence (32)Every Learner Everywhere (30)WCET Awards (30)State Authorization Network (29)IPEDS (28)Adaptive/Personalized Learning (28)Reauthorization (28)Military and Veterans (27)Survey (27)Credits (26)Disabilities (25)MOOC (23)WCET Summit (23)Evaluation (22)Complaint Process (21)Retention (21)Enrollment (21)Correspondence Course (18)Physical Presence (17)WICHE (17)Cybersecurity (16)Products and Services (16)Forprofit Universities (15)Member-Only (15)WCET Webcast (15)Blended/Hybrid Learning (14)System/Consortia (14)Digital Divide (14)NCOER (14)Textbooks (14)Mobile Learning (13)Consortia (13)Personalized Learning (12)Futures (11)Marketing (11)Privacy (11)STEM (11)Prior Learning Assessment (10)Courseware (10)Teacher Prep (10)Social Media (9)LMS (9)Rankings (9)Standards (8)Student Authentication (8)Partnership (8)Tuition and Fees (7)Readiness and Developmental Courses (7)What's Next (7)International Students (6)K-12 (6)Lab Courses (6)Nursing (6)Remote Learning (6)Testing (6)Graduation (6)Proctoring (5)Closer Conversation (5)ROI (5)DETA (5)Game-based/Gamification (5)Dual Enrollment (4)Outsourcing (4)Coding (4)Security (4)Higher Education Trends (4)Mental Health (4)Fall and Beyond Series (3)In a Time of Crisis (3)Net Neutrality (3)Universal Design for Learning (3)Cheating Syndicates Series (3)ChatGPT (3)Enrollment Shift (3)Nontraditional Learners (2)Student Identity Verification (2)Cross Skilling/Reskilling (2)Virtual Summit (2)Higher Education (2)Title IX (1)Business of Higher Education (1)OPMs (1)Department of Education (1)Third-Party Servicers (1)microcredentials (1)Minority Serving Institution (1)equity (1)Community College (1)