No surprise: Accrediting agency opts to stunt innovation

By:

Aug 8, 2013

Several years ago I offered words of praise when Tiffin College partnered with Altius Education to create Ivy Bridge College, a two-year online institution dedicated to providing an affordable higher education option that boosted the transfer rate of two-year students to four-year institutions.

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the accrediting body for the North Central region and thus this partnership because Tiffin College is located in an Ohio city that was once populated with industry, agreed strongly, as in 2010 it approved continuing accreditation for Tiffin University and Ivy Bridge College through 2020. At the time, the HLC lauded the partnership.

In the last few weeks, everything changed. On Thursday, Tiffin University informed students that the HLC had issued a directive that the school must discontinue offering associate degree programs through Ivy Bridge College as of October 20, 2013.

It wasn’t that Ivy Bridge College was serving its students less well per se. According to Altius and others, the program is doing pretty well relatively speaking, in contradiction to the charges that HLC President Sylvia Manning leveled in the last few days. Instead it appears that the HLC found that the partnership’s business structure flew in the face of its policies and procedures, as it alleged in essence that Tiffin did not have enough control of the institution, and Altius had too much control.

A bit of a closer look suggests other dynamics occurring beneath the surface.

Altius had been in the early stages of working with another accreditor to receive accreditation to operate Ivy Bridge College as an independent institution unaffiliated with Tiffin College. Although the partnership with Tiffin had gone well, ultimately my hope that Tiffin would be able to operate Ivy Bridge College as a fully autonomous division—the only way for an organization to survive disruption, as it allows it to pioneer the disruption itself—had not exactly materialized, which is ironic given the HLC’s charges. As a result, existing processes in the school had compromised some of Ivy Bridge’s potentially disruptive value proposition. Despite many innovative moves, for example, Ivy Bridge was still somewhat constrained in its ability to innovate further on price, the learning model, the role of teachers, and other such actions to give students a better learning experience. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tiffin President Paul Marion also said that the partnership had not been profitable yet for Tiffin.

Once Altius notified the HLC that it was seeking accreditation for Ivy Bridge College to operate independently, things began to unravel.

I don’t know precisely what happened—and Altius, Tiffin, and the HLC have aired several disagreements over the turn of events in the press in the last several days—but it doesn’t take a genius to posit some educated guesses. In recent years, accreditors have cracked down on new entrants entering the higher education landscape. As bodies that, as Kevin Carey has written, exist “at the pleasure of their members,” accreditation serves effectively as a major barrier to new entrants, as Burck Smith has written. This might be great for existing colleges and universities, but it works against innovative entrants that might help students.

First the accreditors cracked down on for-profit institutions. Then they largely ceased to allow for-profits to acquire struggling non-profits with regional accreditation. Now it seems they may attack what many assumed was a safe place for innovation in higher education—the explosion of partnerships between traditional institutions and for-profit service providers, like Altius, 2U, and Academic Partnerships.

Why? The accreditors have been clear in recent years that they won’t allow new entrants to gain accreditation through an easy process; instead, it will take literally several years.

There was one alternative method though to gain accreditation, which was a logical one. If the provider had a good track record—as Ivy Bridge has had—then the provider could get its accreditation fast tracked. But of course that would inadvertently allow in a new entrant that might innovate and disrupt the traditional higher education institutions. Which is essentially what Altius and Ivy Bridge intended to do.

The HLC’s solution? Strip the partnership of its ability to operate so that Ivy Bridge and Altius would not have a good track record to gain independent accreditation. And block innovation. And create chaos in the lives of students—largely adults, many of whom are members of minority groups, low income, and are primary givers for children or independents—enrolled currently in the program.

In other words, protect the existing institutions at the expense of students.

Now, according to the Chronicle, the HLC said that Tiffin was the one that “chose to withdraw its application” for approval with its new polices and procedures. But that is a disingenuous answer. President Marion said that although that was true, it was because the accreditors clearly told Tiffin that the application was unlikely to be approved and that the university “would be wise to withdraw it” or else “be in jeopardy of losing accreditation.”

This is also sadly predictable. We have observed again and again that regulations rarely change first to allow for disruptive innovations. Instead, disruptive innovations tend to plant themselves outside of the reach of the regulations. Then they grow, and, over time, the regulations cave ex-post facto as a new reality emerges. The reason is that although regulations tend to be put in place to protect consumers initially, over time they become ways for existing institutions to protect themselves, often at the expense of consumers.

We’re now seeing this play out in higher education. The question perhaps will become which would-be disruptive organizations will go completely around the regulations to truly transform higher education—and bring down the stonewalling accreditors and other antiquated regulations in the process. It won’t be easy. But as we’re seeing once again, it might be necessary.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.