Five ways to modernize accreditation

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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 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.