One of the most important uses of real-time labor data is in giving students more options to gain skills that really connect them to the workforce. Burning Glass is part of a new federal pilot project that may change how skills are taught—and perhaps also how schools themselves are graded.

The U.S. Education Department announced $17 million in grants this week to experiment with allowing federal student aid for non-traditional, short-term training programs, such as coding boot camps. The pilot project, known as EQUIP, pairs an accredited institution with a nontraditional provider to create an eligible program. That’s good news for all of us who believe that the right “dosage” for career-directed learning may not always be a full degree.

At the same time, providing financial aid for alternative training programs could raise some thorny issues around quality.  Traditional institutions can be vetted (and if need be, sanctioned) using established accreditation processes. In the absence of formal accreditation, how can the government make sure it’s not lending money against programs that are low-quality or that lack market relevance?

To address this concern, a key facet of the Department of Education’s experiment is to place each program under the oversight of a “Quality Assurance Entity.”  Burning Glass will be joining forces with three other firms in a new nonprofit collaborative to serve as the QAE in one of the six experimental sites.

Specifically, Colorado State University and Guild Education will offer a joint one-year certificate program in Management and Leadership Fundamentals, aimed at helping students advance from low-wage roles into supervisory roles. Our real-time labor data will be a key element in assessing the efficacy of the program and in holding the providers accountable for staying aligned with the market.

This is an exciting opportunity to show how real-time labor data can make education more effective for educators, students, and employers alike and we are proud to be a part of this ground-breaking project. One of the most significant trends for 21st century workers is the need to pick up skills in more flexible ways. It is only sensible to consider new ways of helping students pay for these skills which is why this will be a closely-watched experiment.

But, beyond this pilot project itself, the role we are playing in assuring program quality has implications for how accreditation systems may be reinvented for 21st century education. Alignment with the job market ought to play a bigger part in how programs are assessed. This assessment needs to go beyond demonstrating broad proof of occupational demand. We need to ensure that programs are teaching the specific skills students will need in the market in a way that adapts far faster than the slow pace of current accreditation systems.

This pilot project may show the way to creating a more flexible, but still stringent, method of making sure students get the education they need for the money they spend.

Burning Glass and several partner organizations have proposed a panel around these questions for next year’s SXSWedu conference, titled Scaling the boot camp model for middle class jobs We hope you’ll consider voting for the panel in the SXSW PanelPicker and help keep the discussion going on these critical questions. 

Matthew Sigelman is CEO of Burning Glass Technologies.