A new nonprofit organization, the Workforce Talent Educators Association, is attempting to use the accreditation model to push for strong career education programs and degrees — and to serve as a stamp of quality for them.
That's no easy task. The career education space is filled with a range of traditional college degrees as well as other options like certificate programs, stackable credentials, badges and apprenticeships. Plus, data on student outcomes for programs in the space can be confusing, lagging and limited.
But the new organization, called WTEA for short, is nonetheless trying to align educators and employers so they can match the skills students learn to the needs of evolving job markets. Its founding members include Texas State Technical College, California-based teacher-focused Reach University, private student loan provider Ascent Funding, and coding boot camps Nucamp and Fullstack Academy. WTEA plans to start assessments in the upcoming academic year.
Higher Ed Dive spoke with WTEA's managing director and chief accreditation officer, Jennifer Dirmeyer, to learn more about the organization and its goals.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
HIGHER ED DIVE: How did this organization come together?
JENNIFER DIRMEYER: I was an economics professor for about 12 years, taught at a couple of different institutions and got tenure at my last institution, Ferris State University. Ferris is a fantastic institution, a really interesting place. It has everything from HVAC management to a PharmD program.
So you have this very wide range of programs: associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, professional doctorates. But there was this commonality among all of them. That was this focus on getting people prepared for work. So it kind of broke some molds in my mind.
It's not really degree level that determines whether or not it's a work-focused degree. It's actually a mission. I started to realize that the incentive structure in higher ed is not really set up to support workforce-focused education.
So I made a decision to leave academia to work on that greater structure of incentives in higher ed, and I ended up being introduced to my co-founder, Joseph Kozusko, who before this founded Skills Fund, a lender for coding boot camps.
We started to think about, "What is the challenge in that incentive structure? What is the infrastructure change that would really help career-focused schools be able to do the work they do, be supported, be recognized for it, help employers and students be able to make better decisions about their education partners?"
And the answer we kept coming back to was quality assurance. We just kept coming back to the fact that the real challenge in any decisions — students' decision, the employer decision, even a grantor decision — is that it's hard to determine right now what makes for a great career-building school.
We decided we would start the Workforce Talent Educators Association to fill that gap — to create an association that certifies schools based on their ability to help open career pathways for students.
What is your timeline for standing up operations?
The phase that we're currently in is refine and review our QA process to make sure that it's effective and that it's measuring what we want it to measure.
Concurrently with that, we are building a national brand around quality and trying to reshape the conversation around career tech so that it's about quality and about effectiveness, as opposed to about degree level or length of program.
After we've got our standards set, we'll start taking on pilot accreditations. We're thinking late 2022 — that may be overly optimistic — probably more like early 2023.
You'll notice we did not say we are going to get Department of Education recognition.
Yes. Do you plan to seek that recognition and eventually be able to grant accreditation that enables colleges to receive Title IV financial aid money?
The answer to that is yes, eventually we would like to take that on. However, it's extremely important to us that we don't build a quality assurance organization whose primary value is Title IV eligibility.
How will WTEA be funded?
We have memberships, but the memberships are not really the primary funding source.
The primary funding source is doing the quality assurance products. It's basically the school or an employer or a grantor or an investor wants to have some quality assurance done on an education institution, and we do it.
Accreditors are sometimes criticized for drawing revenue from the same members they oversee. Have you considered this dynamic?
Yeah, it's a real problem and a real challenge and something we went in with eyes wide open about.
If your main revenue source is educators, and you are doing quality assurance on them, you're going to be tempted to make it nicer. And the fear is it then won't be accurate and won't be easy for people to make decisions based on it.
We have a countervailing incentive there. We have a very strong incentive to be extremely rigorous in our quality assurance right now because we don't have 100 years of reputation. We're new and we really have to prove ourselves as a value-add to this.
But we've also created some internal structures to help us make sure that we keep those conflicts of interest at bay. We are not doing peer review for our quality assurance. We are focusing all of our QA on impact and outcomes.
We're still interested in quality management processes — so we're still interested in instructor quality and career services and student success. We are making sure we can do quality assurance on those by looking at their impact.
We are not allowing educators to have the final say about who gets accredited. We're ensuring that [the accrediting] body has researchers from the workforce development community and that it has employers. Our goal is actually 50% employers.
The goal there is to make sure that we hold ourselves accountable and are not letting people slip, because employers at the end of the day need a workforce that is ready to go. So they are going to be our most incentivized group focused on ensuring that we hold educators accountable.
While there is always that incentive to go easy on your revenue source, that's short-term thinking. At the end of the day, the value of what we do is only our reputation. So we'd better not be loosening up our standards in order to make somebody happy. It's going to make us valueless in the end.