Quality Assurance: The Key to Confidence In Non-Traditional Employee Learning Programs

Bright Horizons Sun Logo

Non-degree programs offer a lot of promise for both students and employers. There's no doubt that boot camps, MOOCs, certificates and badges bolster important skill sets at greater speed while costing less than traditional programs. And they have value that is increasingly recognized as not just for high-tech careers.

Yet while these types of programs fill a clear need and are expanding rapidly, there are obstacles to widespread acceptance of their value by employers, namely the absence of an external mechanism to assure educational quality.

The traditional accreditation infrastructure provides a widely-accepted seal of quality to degrees and certificates from accredited US institutions. But for many entities offering new non-degree program formats, that external scrutiny is missing. At EdAssist, this is a concern which is often voiced by our clients as they increasingly look to use these innovative programs to build skills for their employees.

Bestowing a Seal of Quality on an Up-and-Coming Platform

So how do you bestow a seal of quality for new learning formats? Where will it come from? And how will it be funded? Those are big questions.

One suggestion is simply to let employment statistics answer the question. Instead of external examination, the argument is to demonstrate success by sufficient quantities of hiring. In other words, if 90% of graduates of any program are being hired, then the quality of the program must be good.

But this approach presents a number of concerns. If programs are offered based primarily on the established needs of a few major employers, it may reduce program diversity and willingness to cover still-developing skills. It also relies largely on self-reported data, and takes post-graduation employment as the sole criteria for quality. So while employment rates will always be an important consideration, the need remains for an additional external quality standard which supports the growth of new programs.

Looking to Employers, Providers, and the Department of Education

One option is to look to the Department of Education to lead this. The department has certainly expressed interest in encouraging the emergence of an accreditation process for newer educational options, however there are a couple of barriers to its involvement.

First, it may be difficult for the government and its chosen agencies to be nimble enough to react to the emergence of new learning formats (nano-degrees vs. micro-certificates, anyone?). Perhaps more significantly, the baggage of any "approved" programs being eligible for federal funds will make any associated legislation difficult to pass, particularly in our current partisan environment.

Employers, on the other hand, may be in a much better position to take the lead. Like the government, they will need to engage independent organizations that have the appropriate expertise and credibility. Possible partner organizations include ANSI or NCCA, which could expand from their current coverage of skill-based certificates and certifications.

Alternatively, CHEA or the existing regional accreditation bodies could also establish new entities specializing in non-traditional programs. Any of these approaches could provide independent verification of the worth of an institution or program, with the flexibility to inspect new program formats as they arise.

Finding the Funding  

Whatever approach is embraced, there will also be the issue of funding. Assuring educational quality by inspecting programs or institutions does not come cheap. Higher-cost degree programs have historically supported the existing accreditations infrastructure, but with the much lower fees being charged to students for these new programs, who will pay for the quality process?

Even with their revenue constraints, we should still look to the educational providers for at least partial funding for accreditation. Employers, for their part, can strongly encourage providers' participation by insisting upon external quality standards for any programs in which they're enrolling their employees. But employers may also wish to get involved in a more active way. For example, relevant industry groups could support and provide seed funding for the accreditation process for programs providing relevant skills for their sector.

Supporting Employee Learning by Continuing the Conversation

This is an important issue with many facets and open questions. At EdAssist we're discussing these concerns with our clients, but we're also soliciting input from a wider group of employers and education providers. 

The bottom line is that in a world with exploding educational choices for employee learning, quality really matters. It matters to employees investing their own money toward acquiring new skills; it matters to managers choosing from candidates with a wide range of previously unknown qualifications; and it matters to employers investing their training budgets in these new learning programs.

Written by: Alan Robins

About the Author

Alan Robins at Bright Horizons

As Director of Product Marketing, Alan drives original research and thought leadership for Bright Horizons education benefits programs, drawing on his extensive experience helping companies optimize education programs to support their Talent and HR objectives. Prior to Bright Horizons, Alan was at Gartner, a global leader in providing advisory services to technology and business executives, where he led new product teams in Europe and the US.