While Washington, D.C. slams accreditors for not holding colleges and universities accountable for their student outcomes, the more insidious failure of accreditation is the stifling effect on innovation at existing institutions.

Three case studies from a new paper that I coauthored with my colleague Alana Dunagan that was published originally as a chapter in the new book Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education illustrate why.

Tiffin College

In the summer of 2013, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), one of the United States’s regional accreditors, issued an edict that Tiffin College must shut down its innovative Ivy Bridge program. Ivy Bridge was an autonomous online unit from the rest of Tiffin that it had built in partnership with Altius, an edtech startup that education entrepreneur Paul Freedman—the founder and CEO of the Entangled Group where I am now the chief strategy officer—had founded.

The demand was shocking because just a couple years earlier HLC had praised Ivy Bridge as an important step forward for Tiffin, saying, “The concept of the Ivy Bridge partnership is an excellent strategic initiative.”

Underlying HLC’s new view was that Tiffin had given the autonomous entity too much control.

Bellevue University

Months earlier, Bellevue University, a non-profit university in Bellevue, Nebraska, launched a new innovative program called Flexxive, a competency-based, self-paced online program where a degree would cost only $10,000. A glowing profile in Inside Higher Ed noted that, “An instructional team of four from Bellevue—including two faculty members, a student coach and a ‘reader’ who monitors and grades work—will help students as they work through course material, ensuring that they’re making progress.”

Bellevue’s accreditor, HLC, initially permitted the program. But just after the Inside Higher Ed piece, the Department of Education weighed in and challenged the program on the grounds of “substantive interaction”—essentially claiming that the contact between students and professors in the Flexxive program was too limited so the courses would not qualify for financial aid.

Given that HLC had said the program was OK, Bellevue expected it to advocate on its behalf. Instead, HLC opened an investigation of its own and took issue with the autonomous team Bellevue had created to develop the program.

Five years later, despite having shuttered the program and provided reams of evidence to the Department of Education refuting its concerns, Bellevue remains under program review, which has stifled its ability to innovate.

Southern New Hampshire University

A year before all the drama at Tiffin and Bellevue, in the northeast, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), a non-profit, enjoyed a very different experience. It created a program called College for America (CfA), which, like Flexxive, was a competency-based, self-paced, online program that cost $3,000 a year. Like Tiffin and Bellevue, SNHU used an autonomous entity to create CfA. But unlike the other two, SNHU’s accreditor, the New England Association of Schools & Colleges approved the structure and SNHU’s proposal to create CfA in September 2012.

Accreditation stifles innovation

Why were SNHU’s efforts to build a competency-based program successful, whereas Bellevue’s attempt to build a similar program was ultimately blocked?

Accreditation as it stands currently is inconsistent, both between accreditors, and between the same accreditor at different points in time. Standards of accreditation vary between accreditors, but their interpretation varies to a larger degree—even between different accrediting teams looking at the same institution.

This creates uncertainties for institutional leaders and creates untenable risks around innovating for schools with limited resources. Many cannot afford the financial and reputational losses involved in being a Tiffin or a Bellevue.

Institutions that are able to innovate are those blessed by geography—a cooperative, forward-thinking regional accreditor—as well as finances. Innovation can be expensive, especially when it is shut down midstream.

All this points to something I have said many times. Accreditation is too “input driven.”

Institutional accreditors look at an institution’s mission statement, planning practices, governance structure, academic oversight, student policies—all of which are inputs to education, not outcomes of it.

Even standards like “educational effectiveness” only require institutions to study and consider whether the institution is effective. The institution is not held accountable for meeting any specific outcomes.

Even worse, the focus on inputs makes it challenging for institutions to change their business models. It is challenging, if not impossible, to innovate and create a healthier dinner, for example, without changing any of the ingredients. If accreditors have the ability to bar institutions from creating new, autonomous organizational structures with vastly different ingredients, then that will, by definition, inhibit innovation.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.