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Current Accreditation Model Too Focused on Preserving Status Quo

As colleges and universities seek innovations that will allow them to address their current crop of challenges — a growing number of non-traditional students, a bigger emphasis on workforce preparation, the use of data and new technologies to improve learning — accreditors can help or hinder those efforts. A new report from the Christensen Institute has suggested that until accreditation bodies do a better job across the board of helping their institutions by supporting innovation, they're just getting in the way and allowing unaccredited schools to hold the competitive advantage.

According to Alana Dunagan, co-author with Michael Horn of "Innovation and Quality Assurance in Higher Education," the current model for accreditation "is slow, input-driven, unpredictable and opaque." The sole benefit accreditation bestows on a school, she suggested in a blog post, is the ability to receive federal Title IV funding. The big disadvantage is that any college and university that wants to pursue a new opportunity needs to go through its accreditor to make sure the practice would be consistent with its quality standards. That burden doesn't exist for private-sector organizations. They can blaze ahead and come up with their own means of auditing and reporting outcomes.

The paper shares four case studies where accreditation has either gone wrong or has been bypassed altogether.

According to the report, Nebraska's Bellevue University sunk a million dollars into Flexxive, a "low-cost, mobile-first, competency-based, all-you-can-consume educational program." While the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) vetted the plans, it reversed direction when the U.S. Department of Education challenged the program, claiming that the courses wouldn't qualify for financial aid because they would follow processes different from the university's core programs and would be operated out of an "autonomous unit." Rather than advocating with the federal agency on behalf of the university, HLC followed up with its own investigation and came back with findings that put accreditation of the entire school at risk. In response, the program is being "sunsetted."

In 2008, Ohio's Tiffin University launched Ivy Bridge, an online college, in partnership with education technology startup Altius. Throughout the process, Tiffin communicated continually with HLC, the same accreditor Bellevue had. During a 2010 10-year review, HLC's review team reported that Ivy Bridge "represented an important step forward" for the university because it allowed the school to reach an underserved population of students who thrived on "strong curriculum, efficient and effective academic support, excellent instruction and a very good portal for online delivery." By the end of 2011, however, when the university and Altius began the work of spinning off Ivy Bridge as its own institution with accreditation under the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, HLC began singing a different tune and undertook a fresh review that found Tiffin's relationship with Ivy Bridge "rotten from top to bottom." The university chose to comply with HLC's request to shut down the program rather than risk its entire accreditation.

In contrast, Southern New Hampshire University has successfully built a program, College for America, that's "quite similar in certain respects" to what Bellevue and Tiffin tried. Accredited by the New England Association of Schools & Colleges, it was approved in the spring of 2013, "just months before Ivy Bridge was unceremoniously shut down." Enrollment in the program has grown to 80,000 students, most of whom are learning online.

The fourth case study profiled General Assembly, an unaccredited school with online and face-to-face courses that lacks access to Title IV funding but has served at least 35,000 students since its founding in 2011 and its expansion to 20 campuses in six countries. In April, the school announced that it had been acquired for $412.5 million in cash by Adecco, a Swiss staffing and workforce development company.

The authors offered four takeaways:

Accreditor rules are inconsistently applied. While standards may vary among accreditors, interpretation does too, "even between different accrediting teams looking at the same institution." That introduces uncertainties for administrators and "creates untenable risks" for institutions with limited resources. "Investment in innovation," the authors stated, "does not thrive in climates of uncertainty.

Input-driven standards obstruct innovation. When it's inputs such as the mission statement, planning processes, governance structures, academic oversight and other such minutia that accreditors want to review, it's a struggle for schools to change their emphasis to focusing on outputs under the same staffing and business procedures. Yet if accreditors bar colleges from setting up "new, autonomous organizational structures" to oversee innovative programs, they will, "by definition," stifle innovation.

Operators can move faster outside of the accreditation process and as a result are drawing in ever greater numbers of students. "As innovation takes place outside of traditional institutions," the report noted, "new value networks are developing, including new education providers, new sources of capital, and new value propositions for students and employers."

Accreditors aren't the only barriers holding back innovation. Schools that want to experiment also have to "contend with an outdated Higher Education Act, Department of Education rules designed for a pre-internet era and a financial aid system that measures itself by time spent in a seat rather than what is learned."

The report was first published as a chapter in Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. It's openly available on the Christensen Institute website.

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