Are MOOCs, Bootcamps and Other Alternative Education Options Effective?

The U.S. Capitol Building, in Washington, D.C.The House has passed one bill, and is likely to pass another, that would provide funding for people to enroll in certificate programs, apprenticeships, bootcamps and other technical education programs. But a new study questions the quality of these programs, as well as the evidence that demonstrates their efficacy.

The courses, many of them online, have been called the perfect solution for education seekers put off by the time and expense of traditional college degree programs. Praised as shorter, cheaper and more tailored to practical skills than four-year degree programs, the alternative programs have seen rare moments of bipartisan support from lawmakers: the new GI Bill, which heads to the House of Representatives for a vote, and the Perkins Act Reauthorization, a career and technical education funding bill that passed unanimously in the House last month, provide federal support for these types of educational opportunities.

However, a study released Wednesday by the American Council on Education finds that the promise of these programs, categorized as “alternative postsecondary credentials and pathways,” proves more complicated to determine. According to researchers Jessie Brown and Martin Kurzweil, while these programs have had some success in bridging key skill and employment gaps, they require further data collection and quality assurance efforts to validate their effectiveness.

The study is the first major effort to describe the vast and varied landscape of alternative postsecondary credentials. Kurzweil said this category of educational opportunities has lacked both definition and quantification up until this point.

“We quickly learned that while there’s some piecemeal information, there really hasn’t been this kind of landscape review before,” Kurzweil said. “That’s surprising, because there’s millions of Americans engaged in this kind of postsecondary education.”

[READ: Democrats Protest Cuts to Teacher Prep, Pell Grants]

Brown and Kurzweil evaluated five types of programs: certificate programs, which offer labor market-focused training; work-based training, like apprenticeships; skills-based short courses, like coding bootcamps; Massive Open Online Courses and online micro-credentials; and competency-based education programs, which offer credentials based on skill acquisition rather than traditional course completion.

The categorical review showed that earning power varies widely upon completion, depending on the subject studied. A computer science certificate program graduate, for example, can expect to earn more than twice a health care or cosmetology certificate recipient.

Who pursues the programs varies, too. Certificate programs, work-based training and competency-based programs tend to attract older, lower-income learners who have not completed a college degree. Meanwhile, 80 percent of bootcamp enrollees and 75 percent of MOOC participants already have a bachelor’s degree.

Brown and Kurzweil found weak evidence of the programs’ effectiveness and a wide variation in quality assurances. To mitigate this, the study recommended policy changes to collect more comprehensive data on educational and employment outcomes, to enforce quality assurance standards and to devote resources to investigating efficacy and return on investment.

The recommendations echo concerns of advocacy groups like The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which, alongside 18 other organizations, promoted greater federal oversight of career and technical education programs in a June 22 letter to the House of Representatives about the Perkins Act Reauthorization.

Kurzweil also warned that close oversight should govern for-profit institutions and companies, where a lot of growth in these types of educational opportunities has taken place, especially considering legislation that could see more federal money directed toward these programs. Poor educational and employment outcomes, high debt burdens and loan defaults associated with for-profit education speaks to this need, Kurzweil said.

Still, Kurzweil said that the immediately relevant job skills these programs provide solve a lot of problems that the traditional American educational system doesn’t.

“It’s a sector that has a lot of students and great potential, and it’s really improving people’s lives, but it’s important not to support it blindly,” Kurzweil said.