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Clinton Courts Silicon Valley with Higher Education Overhaul Plan

Hillary Clinton is directly courting Silicon Valley in her $350 billion plan to overhaul higher education. Clinton will reveal the full details of her plan at an upcoming talk in New Hampshire, but she has released the major tenets to news outlets.

The two pillars of Clinton’s plan are to reign in student debt and increase spending per pupil, with some combination of federal and state spending. But, the more subtle and disruptive aspect of the plan could be her ideas for vocational training and accreditation.

The campaign reportedly consulted the founder of online education provider, Udacity, on drafting new rules for what counts as a college degree. Udacity, and other education startups, such as Coursera, have been busy building unaccredited, vocationally oriented degrees. Udacity, for instance, created a set of computer engineering courses aimed at students with zero background in programming. For $200/month, students get access to tutors and a certificate of completion at the end of the self-paced sequence of courses.

Despite millions in funding, Udacity, Coursera, and the cottage industry of online education startups have struggled to gain the same legitimacy as a 4-year accredited university. A bachelor’s degree from a University of California holds far more weight in the job market than an online education provider, even though alternative schooling is beginning to make inroads among Silicon Valley employers.

Accreditation or other federal policies that begin to officially recognize alternatives to the 4-year degree could help students financially, should they choose Udacity or Coursera. Right now, tuition lending policies favor two and 4-year colleges, partly because loans have traditionally recognized “seat time” as a requirement for aid. Many online education providers are competency based, not time-based, meaning that if a student could pass all of the exams on the first day, they’d only need to show up for a few hours worth of classes. There’s no requirement that they ever attend class, just prove they’ve mastered the subject material.

Just last night, I got a glimpse of how much more difficult it is for students  to choose Udacity over a traditional college, if they want to remain debt-free. I got a ride with a Lyft driver who told me he works 12 hour days, 7 days a week. In his (little) spare time, he’s taking the Udacity computer programming “nanodegree” for $200/month. He’s in his 30s, yet has no college degree and doesn’t want much debt.

There’s a good chance with this kind of work ethic, he could get a high-paying job in the tech industry, but it’s likely more difficult for him to get a loan, because he’s pursuing a non-traditional track. For now, he has to work crazy hours to afford to live in San Francisco and go to school at the same time.

To be sure, this idea is bipartisan. Clinton competitor, Senator Marco Rubio, has also proposed overhauling the accreditation process, which will presumably benefit Silicon Valley education startups.

So, Silicon Valley’s plans for higher education could win with either a Republican or Democrat as President–but only with  a candidate who is willing to take on established interests.

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