Five ways to modernize accreditation


May 17, 2016

Last month, I had the chance to join a compelling discussion on national higher education at the Beyond the Horizon conference led by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) in Chicago. HLC, one of the largest regional accreditors, chose to end the conference on an innovative note: looking at the future of accreditation in light of the change afoot in the learning experiences and delivery models emerging in the higher education space.

As we’ve noted in our research, the higher education landscape is undergoing a radical shift from the ground-up, as innovative new approaches emerge for delivering both traditional degrees and unbundled employer-driven credentials. But traditional accreditation policies do little to create space for these new offerings that can be customized to meet the needs of different students at price points those students can afford. Here are five important ways to modernize accreditation and pave the way for these disruptors to serve the nation’s next generation of college students:

1. Open up alternative financing mechanisms. Leverage private financing to create the demand and supply sides of an unbundled market. If providers and students are required to raise some of their capital from the private market for federal aid eligibility, private investors would seek out and direct taxpayer dollars to the most valuable providers and models.

2. Establish a quality-value index. In the current accreditation system, access to federal dollars is an all-or-nothing proposition. But a new, outcomes-based quality assurance process—a quality-value (QV) index—would create an alternative path to federal financing that would not, at least initially, compete with existing organizations for Title IV dollars. Key measures would include job- or school-placement rate; how much students’ earnings increase compared to their prior expected earnings over a period of time after leaving the institution, relative to the institution’s total expenditures; a survey of customer satisfaction among alumni. A QV index would usher in much greater levels of transparency around prices and outcomes.

3. Take into account at-risk students when measuring institutional outcomes New outcomes-based measures, like the QV index, need to be risk-weighted to prevent institutions from limiting access to students most at risk to fail academically or drop out of school. In doing so, we have a chance at building a stronger system when it comes to supporting all students, regardless of their income or geographical disadvantages.

4. Balance student interests with industry validation. Who better than employers to assess the quality of alternative—not to mention, affordable—learning pathways? In fact, Udacity has already created an employer-led de facto accrediting organization, the Open Education Alliance—an industry-wide coalition of educators and employers that include Google, AT&T, and Intuit. The participation of employers provides credibility to the nanodegree credential that Udacity offers. Employers’ seal of approval obviates accreditors as well as the need for financial aid dollars. That said, some wince at the thought that employers become the sole end customer for higher education, as students should have credentials that allow them to move among jobs and even industries in an ever-changing job market. To that end, accreditors can start to play the role of incorporating more rigorously industry demand with broader student interests.

5. Redefine higher education for an evolving world. These potentially disruptive institutions challenge the existing definition of higher education. Let’s ask the question: what is college? Our answer should consider how emerging institutions–such as bootcamps, online competency-based programs, and employer-embedded training programs–can more effectively meet the educational and financial needs of increasingly diverse prospective students.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • It is doubtful that the recommendations will severely impact the selective admissions institutions or the choices of those who can afford the rising alternatives that include international programs and “gap year” seekers., for example.

    Rather this seems to lead, as concerns many, that post secondary education will become an extension of the public educational program and we will see a reinvention of the blue/white collar distinction with, perhaps some more mobility across the divide.

    Also, what is not under consideration here is that knowledge work is fungible and transferable across geo/political boundaries. Thus much of what is implied here as education is equally accessible, internationally, as is the applications thereof. That, of course, is not to mention the growing capabilities of Watson and “children”.

    Additionally, it further exacerbates the concerns of many with regards to the questioning of the importance of the broader functions of a post secondary education, critical skills that are harder to monetize.

  • “What is College?” College is a place where students can spend four years figuring out who they are! As the father of adult children who work in social services, free-lance writing, managing and designing mountain bike trails, and rehabilitating old timber frame buildings I don’t see any connection between their college majors and their work. But I DO see a connection between what they learned about themselves during their college-age years and their work. I also note that three are self-employed and two work for non-profits… but I also note that none of them want to be billionaires or think of themselves as “cogs in an economic machine”. I think the “investment” in college paid off, though, because they find their work fulfilling and are doing a good job at raising their children and they seem satisfied with their lives.

    In today’s corporatized view of “school”, children from kindergarten onward are subject to age-based tests that have nothing to do with their own interests and have no demonstrable correlation with work force preparedness or college readiness. If the high stakes assessments we administer DID have any connection to these outcomes one would expect that after 15 years of standardized testing that post secondary institutions and employers would see an improvement in preparedness. That is clearly not the case.

    The algorithm suggested in this article seems to be driven by the same logic as the factory model in place in K-12 education and seems to seek the same end: it seeks compliant, well-trained worker-bees for “employers” and does not strive to meet the needs of the human beings seeking meaning in their work. Maybe if we allowed children to seek meaning instead of ever increasing test scores we just might get the committed work force ALL employers want to see instead of the directionless sheep we seem to be graduating from high school and college.