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The new Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, hastily passed by the US House in mid-December 2017, offers new incentives for institutions to implement nontraditional educational programs – but has also opened up the door for poorly planned and regulated programs to oversell and under-deliver on quality education.

Institutions and vendors must offer nontraditional students high-quality tools and educational programs

While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claims that this bill "offers a holistic, reform-minded approach" to US higher education, its benefits are mixed. The new bill does eliminate certain shortcomings of its previous iterations. For instance, it removed the Act's outdated definition of "distance education" and its poorly defined requirement for "regular and substantive interaction" between instructors and students: two strictures that led to the Office of Inspector General deeming Western Governors University to be out of compliance. The bill also substantially reduces credit hour standards that have previously barred certain courses from being eligible for federal financial aid. In other words, the new administration is encouraging institutions to implement competency-based courses (which are self-paced and determined by mastery or knowledge of concepts, rather than time in seat), and other nontraditional educational programs, such as credentials and certifications.

Higher education's embracing of nontraditional models is a positive step, and harkens back to DeVos's stated mandate to provide educational access for a broad range of constituents. However, it is important to remember that nontraditional students are at the highest risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous universities or ill-conceived programs. The PROSPER Act has not put in any safeguards to ensure that a quality review process is put in place (e.g., it will allow institutions to partner with non-institutional providers, such as coding boot camps, which do not have to receive accreditation or state approval). Vendors should undoubtedly be making sure that their student information system (SIS), learning management system (LMS), and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions can support the expanding market demand for nontraditional models such as CBE and continuing education, but they – and the institutions they partner with – must never forget their responsibility to the ultimate end users: the students.


Further reading

"Ruling against Western Governors University represents new opportunities for online learning vendors," IT0008-000323 (October 2017)

"Competency-based education provides innovation for institutions and new traditional students," IT0008-000317 (August 2017)


Joyce Kim, Analyst, Education Technology

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