American higher education is in crisis: According to the White House, over the past 30 years the average tuition at public four-year colleges has increased more than 250%, while family income only increased 16%. In return for that pricey investment in higher education, nearly 50% of recent college graduates are underemployed, and the US now lags behind 15 other nations in terms of degree and certificate attainment for adults aged 25-34. Just when our country vitally needs a more educated workforce to stay competitive, the US system of higher education - once the envy of the world- is struggling to keep pace with changes in technology, demographics, and the educational requirements of a knowledge-based economy. President Obama has deemed this crisis such a priority that he is making it a personal mission, and devoting an entire media tour to the subject.
How can our diverse, 4,300 two- and four-year schools collectively be failing to produce the outcomes we need, at the scale we need them, all at the same time?
How can this be? Our nation invests billions in higher education. We have an incredibly diverse group of more than 4,300 two- and four-year schools that represent every part of the country. How can they collectively be failing to produce the outcomes we need, at the scale we need them, all at the same time? Meanwhile, myself and many other education innovators have developed a wide and promising array of ideas and remarkable innovative programs for solving the issues--lowering costs, improving quality and personalization, supporting non-traditional students. This is real, tested, legitimate work that has produced good results.
So why have these solutions not yet driven the fundamental change the system needs? Innovators that could bring costs down and help our system stay on the leading-edge are being stifled by little-known organizations that possess tremendous unregulated power in higher education: accreditors. As a result, our system is sick--plagued by an institutionalized lack of adaptation.
Most people, even many people who work in higher education, do not really know what accreditors are, or what they do. To the extent there is any awareness, it is naturally assumed that accreditors are in place to protect students and ensure the quality of academic programs. If they are indeed stewards of the public trust responsible for ensuring the quality of our higher education system, then they are also responsible for its outcomes and therefore share a large portion of the blame for the failures in higher education that we see today. Accreditation is the one constant across all US higher education institutions.
Accreditors act as judge, jury, and executioner for most things in higher education. In order for a university to experiment with a new delivery model, enter into a new partnership, or even launch a new degree program they need approval from their accreditor.
How accredition came to be
How did these accreditors gain so much power to bind the hands of the system? Accreditors have a long history in the United States. The first accreditor was established in 1895 as essentially a social club for universities to share best practices. Some institutions chose to be members, others (including Harvard) did not. In general there were few consequence either way.
That changed after the Korean War GI Bill. When Congress authorized a tuition assistance plan for vets returning from that war, the government needed a way to determine which universities would be eligible to receive the tuition subsidizes. They didn't want to create a cumbersome new process so Congress picked the already existing accreditors as the means of authorizing which schools could receive the federal funds.
That was the moment when these previously independent consortiums of colleagues became pseudo-deputized governmental agencies.
In the decades that have followed, as more government money has gone into supporting students specifically and higher education in general, the accreditors have increasingly gained power and control over the higher education system and its outcomes. They have this power because they have sole discretion over an institution’s access to student financial aid, and as of 2011, 71% of undergraduates relied on some form of aid to pay for college. Their policies also largely control what counts as college credit, which further reinforces their authority.
Frowning on new ideas?
Unfortunately two of the hallmarks of accreditation--peer review and collegiality--have only further cemented the accreditors' power and out-of-date, traditional operations. For a school to be accredited, the school needs adopt “best practices,” which essentially means adopting the policies, procedures, and modes of deliveries that are just like everybody else...new models, new ideas are explicitly frowned upon.
How can you innovate, or, to steal Apple’s line, how can you “think different” in a system that forces you to be the same? And when the accreditors protect the status quo and their own power, it is the students, the taxpayers, and the US economic viability that get hurt.
When the accreditors protect the status quo and their own power, it is the students, the tax payers, and the US economic viability that get hurt.
Pundits say that that innovations such as online learning, MOOCS, and competency-based models will fundamentally change the system and so threaten traditional university roles. Not only is that assertion true--it's exactly what should happen. As in other industries, changes in market demands and technology open the door for innovation. The landscape of the industry changes, too. When the iPod came out, licensing companies and artists adapted. Those that didn't change struggled; these days the market delivers mobile, licensed content to customers at a reasonable price.
The current accreditation procedures run against everything we know about innovation. It stifles experimentation. It limits opportunities for new models, new systems, or new approaches. It holds suspect anything that is supported by outside investments.
I admit I'm bitter. The Higher Learning Commission, one of the six regional accreditors, recently demanded the shutdown of Ivy Bridge College of Tiffin University. Ivy Bridge is a new model that educated some of the nation’s most underserved and non-traditional students. Ivy Bridge students are primarily low income, adult learners. The majority are women who care for dependents; 82% are first-generation college students. The program was designed to provide a pathway to a bachelor’s degree in the kind of highly-supported, flexible environment that these students need to be successful. Ivy Bridge’s goal was to provide accessible, quality education more effectively and ultimately at a lower cost by leveraging new technology. The program was on a promising trajectory, producing outcomes that were between 52% and 132% better than community college averages.
The problem? Ivy Bridge wanted to change the status quo. The school was supported through a partnership between a traditional university, Tiffin University in Ohio, and Altius Education, a for-profit education services company that I founded. It represented a new type of university partnership, aiming to fundamentally change the way universities serve high need students who are capable but underprepared, the sort of students who need significant support to be successful in college. This is a student population that other universities can’t or won’t touch because they need so many additional resources to succeed, resources that Ivy Bridge could make available through outside investment. Those investments were used to provide success coaching, tutoring, increased faculty numbers, specialized course design, and technology enhancements to make college work for these students.
I believe that our new model was viewed as a threat to the Higher Learning Commission’s ability to control the behavior of the schools they accredit, so we were shut down.
Ivy Bridge College isn’t a single instance case: Accreditors are wary of the notion of MOOCs becoming credit bearing, which could lower the cost of obtaining a college degree. It's also not surprising that competency-based education (which began with teacher education in the 1960s, and has been used by corporations and the military since that time) is today just being approved in “pilot” form by accreditors. Nor is it surprising that disruptive models like Minerva, which seeks to challenge elite universities, are still seeking accreditor approval.
I have heard people in the industry compare the current state of higher education to a sinking ship. If that is accurate, then accreditors should be viewed as the ones who are literally nailing down the deck chairs to the Titanic. We need to keep the students we are all dedicated to serving from going down with the ship. We, as the education industry and as US citizens, need to fight for accreditation reform.