New breed of accreditors aims to hold colleges ‘to task’ for economic gains

This issue of The Job looks at the Postsecondary Commission, which brings a focus on careers to its bid to become a gatekeeper for federal aid. Also, new workforce success standards from WTEA, which also seeks to become an accreditor.

This issue looks at the Postsecondary Commission, which brings a focus on careers to its bid to become a gatekeeper for federal aid. Also, new workforce success standards from WTEA, which also seeks to become an accreditor.

Regulating ROI

As more federal and state money flows toward apprenticeships, work-based learning, and short-term credentials, the consensus is that information on how graduates fare in the labor market remains woefully inadequate.

The same holds true for traditional degree programs. And few experts wade into the tricky question of what sort of employment results are adequate, or even possible, for education paths that prepare low-income students for jobs that may be in high demand but that don’t pay well.

For example, graduates’ wages for programs that train medical assistants or early childhood educators won’t look great to lawmakers or journalists who attended four-year colleges.

Several startups are stepping into this void with bids to become ROI-focused accreditors or to offer quality-assurance stamps to programs from colleges and education providers.

The Workforce Talent Educators Association (WTEA) and the Quality Assurance Commons, which I’ve written about previously, have expanded their work in recent months. And the Postsecondary Commission, led by Stig Leschly, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, is sharing more about its ambitious play to become a new institutional accreditor — a Department of Education–approved gatekeeper for federal aid.

The Postsecondary Commission is attracting some capital and big-name board members, sources say. But Leschly, its president and founder, acknowledges that the road to becoming an accreditor is a long one. Federal approval would take at least five years. During the first three years, he says, the group is looking for colleges that will experiment with the commission’s approach.

“We want to hold colleges to task for producing economic mobility gains,” he says.

The organization is seeking to accredit only nonprofit colleges. While it’s attempting to become an institutional accreditor, rather than focusing on specific programs, the Postsecondary Commission wants to oversee a wide range of credential tracks, including certificates.

Leschly says he is interested in “design diversity” in higher education, as well as in working with colleges that enroll substantial numbers of underserved students.

“An outcome for a college means nothing until you know who they serve,” he says.

The group is developing a protocol to measure the causal ability of a college to improve the economic mobility of students. Speaking broadly, Leschly says such a metric could compare wages of graduates with an estimate of the economic life of students if they didn’t go to college.

Leschly says the Postsecondary Commission has time to develop those measures as it navigates the laborious process of seeking federal recognition.

“We have years to work this out,” he says. “The contribution we’re trying to make here is to improve the field of accreditation.”

Setting Standards

WTEA is seeking public comments on workforce success standards it released in February.

“We see these standards as the way to assure postsecondary education quality as a function of workforce success,” says Jennifer Dirmeyer, WTEA’s co-founder and managing director.

The standards are the core of WTEA’s bid to be recognized as an accreditor by the Education Department, she says. “But also we hope they will inspire current accreditors to shift more toward outcomes and workforce success and away from input-based quality assurance.”

The group recently completed a career impact audit with the Texas State Technical College system and an outcomes review with Fullstack Academy. As a result of those two pilot projects, WTEA says it has developed a “skills validation” methodology to do third-party verification of the skills students are getting in a program.

“This is how we actually move to a world where skills-based hiring is possible,” Dirmeyer says.

Employer Engagement: Yuanxia Ding, senior manager of Career Choice Global Pathways for Amazon, recently joined WTEA’s Board of Directors. Ding has had experience with alternative and labor market–driven quality-assurance projects, including her time with Skills Fund and at the Education Department when the Obama administration conducted its unsuccessful EQUIP experiment.

Given various failed efforts to create new types of accreditors, Ding initially was skeptical of WTEA. But she says the startup’s take is clear and spot-on.

“It’s the approach that doesn’t lead to recreating the same problems as the current system,” she says. “Plus, it can also drive program improvement.”

Two key aspects of accreditation need to change, according to Ding:

  • It should be focused on individual programs, not institutions.
  • Employers need to have a voice in quality assurance.

Likewise, she agrees with long-standing arguments that the revenue model of having colleges pay dues as members of accrediting agencies has the potential to be a conflict of interest that can prevent needed accountability.

Employers stand to benefit from being integrated into the accreditation process, Ding says, chiefly through reducing the time it takes to fill jobs with candidates who can succeed.

The Kicker: “It’s not a crazy thought anymore that employers would be involved in accreditation,” she says.

View From Accreditors

The new standards from WTEA and the growing societal focus on career success for college students fit well with discussions the WASC Senior College and University Commission has been having, says Jamienne Studley, president of the regional accreditor.

“The conversation is getting richer and smarter,” she says, calling the WTEA standards “thoughtful and subtle.”

Studley wrote a chapter that tackled career outcomes for a 2018 anthology on accreditation. And during a stint at the Education Department, she handled the Obama administration’s listening tour for its failed college rating system, which the higher ed industry fought vigorously. So Studley is no stranger to the challenge of trying to incorporate earnings data into the oversight of colleges.

She applauds any effort to connect education and employment but worries about setting bright lines on work-related outcomes. Regional accreditors have resisted setting hard thresholds for metrics such as graduation rates, which colleges of course can improve by admitting more wealthy and better-prepared students.

Accrediting agencies need to be able to exercise judgment, Studley says, particularly on hard-to-measure aspects of college quality.

“Are those lines going to help institutions and students,” she asks, “without creating gotcha consequences that are counterproductive?

Dirmeyer says getting good data on employment outcomes is the hardest part of the process, and a piece WTEA hasn’t solved.

“I don’t want to rely on surveys,” she says. “The answer is going to have to be some form of federal-state partnership.”

The Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), a national agency, has partnered with the QA Commons on its work to review and approve college programs based on the employability of students.

The quality-assurance group’s Essential Employability Qualities Certification process is an external, independent review that signals to employers and the public that a program prepares students with employable skills. The 25 programs certified by QA Commons so far include four offered by DEAC-accredited colleges, including the bachelor’s degree in communication from Bottega University and Martinsburg College’s certificate in medical assisting.

“We see this as a strategic opportunity to demonstrate the strength of DEAC accreditation through the employability focus of QA Commons,” says Leah Matthews, DEAC’s executive director and CEO.

Open Tabs

Tech Hiring

Competition for tech talent remains strong — with the median cost to fill a tech role in the U.S. ringing in at $25K, according to a new survey commissioned by General Assembly. The survey, which talked to 1K hiring managers in 10 countries, also found that 91% of those hiring managers are at least somewhat concerned that they will not be able to fill open jobs in software engineering and similar fields.

CHIPS and Childcare

Companies seeking substantial portions of new federal funding for semiconductor manufacturing will be required to provide childcare for their facility and construction workers, the Commerce Department announced this week. The $39B in subsidies under the CHIPS Act could create an estimated 190K jobs. Participating companies also will be required to submit workforce development plans that follow the department’s Good Jobs Principles.

EV Hiring

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. has begun rolling out pieces of a $34M hiring and retention strategy for the state’s electric vehicle industry. The kickoff included a new $10K scholarship for 350 students who attend three Michigan universities. MEDC also is making investments in Ferris State University, Schoolcraft College, and Macomb Community College to increase their capacity to prepare students for EV/mobility jobs.

Enrollment Crisis

Public K-12 schools began experiencing a student decline prior to the pandemic, followed by an unexpected 2% drop in enrollment in fall 2021, according to a report from the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education. Shrinking K-12 enrollments, coupled with growing evidence of learning and proficiency declines, could further compound the education pipeline’s already challenging future, the report concludes.

Job Moves

Rachel Lipson is joining the U.S. Department of Commerce as a senior policy adviser in the CHIPS Program Office. Lipson has been director of the Project on Workforce at Harvard University, which she helped found in 2019.

Sonya Christian will the first woman to serve in the permanent chancellor role at the California Community College system. The current chancellor of the Kern Community College District, Christian will take the helm of the 116-college system in June.

Marty Alvarado is returning to JFF to be vice president for postsecondary education and training. The current executive vice chancellor of California’s two-year system, Alvarado previously was a senior program director at JFF.

Shalin Jyotishi is joining the leadership of the Burning Glass Institute, where he will drive research programs and workforce experiments. Jyotishi will become a fellow at New America, where he has been a senior analyst at the Center on Education and Labor.

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