Commentary: Online Colleges Can Be Great for Students, but Accreditation Can Stifle Innovation. Focusing on Quality & Outcomes Can Help

In October 2012, the accrediting commission of New England Association of Schools and Colleges approved Southern New Hampshire University’s request to create an online, competency-based program that would partner with employers to provide a college education for just $3,000 per year. The program, College for America, was spotlighted as innovative by then-President Barack Obama for providing students with a low-cost, high-quality education, helping to drive the university’s enrollment toward 100,000.

A few months later, a profile of a similar program offered by Bellevue University appeared in Inside Higher Ed. Bellevue’s program was also online and competency-based and was targeting a total cost of a degree of $10,000. But as the program gained attention, Bellevue’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, began to back away and change its position. Ultimately, it demanded that Bellevue shut down the program — not because of quality or viability, but for arcane governance reasons.

Accreditation in the context of innovation is essentially a game of Russian roulette. It is impossible to know what innovative models can or will be accredited, since similar initiatives are treated differently by different accreditors — even by the same accreditor at different points in time, or by different accrediting teams looking at the same institution.

This creates uncertainties for institutional leaders and creates untenable risks for schools with limited resources that are considering whether to bring innovative programs forward. Many institutions don’t feel they can afford the reputational damage involved in having a program shut down, and institutions do not want to risk having their accreditation revoked. Financial losses can also cut deep: Innovation can be expensive, especially when it’s shut down midstream. Ironically, the institutions that arguably need to innovate the most are often those that are not swimming in resources.

One could look at Southern New Hampshire University’s success with College for America and conclude that accreditation is not at odds with innovation; rather, perhaps, particular accreditors are. But a process that is so subject to individual interpretation and has a track record of inconsistently applying rules and standards cannot be a foundation for regulation supportive of innovation. As countless scholars have shown, investment in innovation does not thrive in climates of uncertainty.

No one wants to see innovation without quality — students, parents, and taxpayers are making massive investments into higher education, and effective quality assurance is imperative to protecting their interests. So how can accreditors create clear rules of the road for higher education that assure high-quality programs but don’t stifle or discourage innovation?

First and most importantly, we could move away from an input-based system to one that emphasizes outcomes. Accrediting standards currently focus on making sure an institution has the right ingredients — professors, processes, committees, curriculum — and disregard outcomes, such as retention, graduation rates, job placement, salaries, and student satisfaction, almost entirely. Ingredients are a part of the quality puzzle, but they aren’t the whole picture; food reviewers judge the dishes that come out of the kitchen, not the ingredients that go into them. Similarly, schools that produce strong outcomes should be judged as high-quality; those with consistently weak outcomes shouldn’t receive taxpayer funding.

Second, accreditors should provide clearer guidance around how they will evaluate nontraditional approaches, and also provide transparency around processes and decisions. Higher education is expensive enough without the costs of schools innovating in the dark, not knowing when they will bump into an accreditation issue. Schools need to be able to design programs to fit accreditation standards — and if those standards are based on outcomes rather than inputs, this all becomes much easier.

Southern New Hampshire University’s achievements have led to thousands of students graduating from college who otherwise would have been locked out of higher education. We should want more schools to follow in its footsteps. To unleash innovation in higher education, accreditors must develop clear rules of the road that emphasize outcomes.

Alana Dunagan is a researcher at the Christensen Institute and co-author of Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education.

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