Aug 2016

Minimizing Conflict of Interest in Quality Assurance

With the growth of unaccredited educational providers, students are facing a barrage of unsubstantiated claims involving the outcomes these different providers produce. Knowing where to invest their time and money in learning is becoming more and more difficult. Similarly, employers and state governments face challenges in knowing from where to hire and which providers to allow to operate, respectively.

The Department of Education’s launch of the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) program has also brought the federal government into the fray, as EQUIP allows non-traditional providers of education to partner with accredited colleges and universities in order to have access to federal aid for students.

These developments necessitate the emergence of a third-party quality assurance system for the health of the industry and its student, employer, and government stakeholders. The EQUIP program has jumpstarted the creation of such a system via a set of Quality Assurance Entities (QAEs), which would monitor student outcomes at experimental sites in order to determine eligibility for federal loans and grants.

The establishment of an auditing framework that examines outcomes is exciting, as it begins to transform the evaluation of “quality” in higher education away from inputs and towards outcomes. This is important; focusing on inputs locks institutions into a fixed way of doing things and inhibits the ability to innovate. Focusing on outcomes, however, encourages continuous improvement toward an overall set of goals—in this case, goals involving student success.

Auditing outcomes, however, is fraught with potential conflicts of interest, as the most likely financial models for a third-party quality assurance system involve educational programs paying the QAE for its services.

Because the third-party role is new, little thought has been given to how to mitigate these conflicts of interest. We believe it is imperative to create guidelines for how QAEs function and what entities may serve as a QAE.


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