As Lambda School, an online coding bootcamp, finds itself in the news on the heels of a lawsuit alleging false advertising, its full-throated defense raises a larger and more urgent set of questions that transcend the performance of one school: the need to move to a common set of standards to measure post-secondary student outcomes.
There is a long history of suspicion and questions around the emergence of new, nontraditional models of education and training for adult learners.
The California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, for example, has continually challenged upstart models of schooling. It levied a small fine of $75,000 against Lambda and previously accused the Holberton School, a two-year, project-based software engineering school, of being an “immediate danger to the public’s health, safety, and welfare.” Why? Because it offered a program that didn’t fit into the bureau’s regulatory framework.
But that framework, albeit well-intentioned, is anachronistic, as it focuses largely on inputs like the type and tenure of faculty members employed and processes like the methods for awarding credit.
Similar input-based frameworks for consumer protection exist across the states to measure everything from financial solvency to the number of books in a school’s library. But in an era where the shelf life of skills is shrinking and the need for rapid upskilling is urgent, new approaches are critical.
Consumer protection matters, but it should encourage continuous improvement and innovation to deliver value in real outcomes for students. Faculty turnover, for example, could be a signal of a problematic program, with the risk of inconsistent delivery—or an indicator that a program is drawing upon the talents of instructor practitioners with real-time experience aligned to the demands of the labor market.
It’s past time for regulators to shift the focus beyond program inputs to instead focus on capturing outcomes aligned to standards that matter. Such frameworks, like the one that the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting created or that of the Education Quality Outcome Standards Board (where Michael is on the board), have already been used by non-traditional providers. And society has decades of experience with financial auditing upon which to draw.
Had Lambda School originally used independently audited placement rates aligned to an external standard, critics and proponents alike could have grounded their arguments in facts and moved to a deeper conversation that centered less on whether Lambda School complied with the rules, but on whether students benefited or were harmed.
Shifting from a compliance toward an outcomes-based framework for evaluating our collective educational investments is firmly in the interest of all schools—not just those experimenting with new models that challenge our vestigial frameworks. As Lambda’s experience shows, schools should realize that in the absence of verified outcomes, it takes only a few disgruntled students or a few poorly done courses to mount a challenge to the reputation of a school. Not only that, but external funders also ought to insist that the schools they support use well-defined standards and pay for audits—or they won’t invest. The risk is too high and the signal is too important to send.
The opportunity is also too big to miss. The status quo isn’t serving most learners or employers particularly well, and new education and training models, like the kinds designed by Lambda and Holberton, are critical to changing that. A greater focus on outcomes would help the market grow in a healthy way—incentivizing promising new players while guarding against bad actors.
Given that regulators already play a role in authorizing post-secondary programs, they should shift from their focus on compliance to fostering a better set of options for students by moving away from measuring inputs to instead tracking outcomes that matter, including career placement, earnings, and retrospective student satisfaction, no matter whether the educational provider follows a traditional design or is creating a new model.
Moving from an input-based to an outcomes-based paradigm isn’t easy. Providers and regulators that make the shift will, no doubt, encounter competing definitions for measures like career placement, with schools using widely different numerators and denominators. For example, does a barista job count as a placement, or does the graduate need to be in a job related to the program? If the graduate isn’t actively looking for a job, do you still have to count them among your unemployed?
And although some private organizations already offer rankings for graduate programs and colleges, the way U.S. News ranks law schools or medical schools, these metrics tend to be focused on inputs as well because that’s the information that is available. Having regulators shift the focus to outcomes could then allow private organizations to create more robust and useful rankings to prospective students. Plus, regulators are uniquely positioned to be able to simplify the collection of relevant data, as they are able to respect individual privacy while connecting education and workforce datasets—which, in most states and across the nation remain separate today.
There are ample models for how this could function, as private and publicly mandated ranking systems coexist productively in other industries. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy collect fuel economy ratings, for example, which Consumer Reports in turn leverages in its ratings.
Working with existing frameworks that have thought through many of the relevant questions of measurement, like that of the Education Quality Outcome Standards Board, can help. And regulators should insist that third-party auditors examine the statements. All of this is to build a new set of norms that focus on the results programs produce and the outcomes that truly matter for students.
Until schools and regulators make the move to audited outcomes-based quality assurance standards, fights like those that have engulfed Lambda School will continue to rage. And those of us that are hopeful that innovators will create more valuable learning experiences for students, but not ready to believe any claim they make, will continue to be left in the dark about what the truth is.
Rather than fighting about what we don’t really know, we should focus on learning more about the true value of all programs and not just the ingredients used to produce them.
Michael B. Horn is a senior strategist at Guild Education and an executive editor at Education Next. Allison Dulin Salisbury is a senior vice president leading the employer solutions team at Guild Education.
Last updated May 25, 2021