What does this all mean? The technology gives us tremendous power to solve this stark problem all around us. We need to design these so no child is left out of this. What need to ask, what is education after all? We need to resolve that. What are we getting our young people ready for? It’s for the purpose of our life. And we need to make sure we give people a purpose to their life. It won’t be done by current system. It will be done by people who have nothing to do with current system. (sic)
This will probably be my last blog for a little while, as I’m about to give birth anytime in the next few days or weeks to my second child. In this moment of heightened anticipation, my concerns about the future of higher education are further amplified. I am hopeful that sometime in the next 15 years, we as educators, administrators, policymakers, and parents will be able to imagine a system that does not rely on precedent—that we do not simply uphold what has in the past been recognized as acceptable.
Will we have the courage to move beyond what we know and explore models of education outside of our current system that lack tradition or brand-name recognition? Will we demand more accountability from all of our established institutions of higher education and ask them to demonstrate that they are preparing our young men and women to contribute with passion and purpose to our workforce and communities?
There are moments like last week when I fear that efforts to harness and take risks with technology and experiment with innovation will be stamped out by those naysayers working from within. I’m thinking specifically of regional accreditors—often a panel of academics wielding their power to reify the existing, conventional norms of higher education. By relying on outdated and less useful measurements of certain inputs as legitimation of a school’s worthiness, entities like the Higher Learning Commission have the power to shut down thoughtful experiments, such as Altius Education’s and Tiffin University’s new approach to building a transfer college called Ivy Bridge College.
It’s not coincidental that the sudden closure of this particular operation occurred after Altius reminded the HLC that they were ultimately seeking to gain regional accreditation for Ivy Bridge as a stand-alone institution. Just before this reminder, the HLC had praised the partnership between Tiffin and Altius. Once the accreditors realized that the governance structures of this particular business model would change, they reversed their outlook and condemned the partnership, citing poor performance outcomes for the students.
The danger for any for-profit attempting to function within the space of regional accreditation is that accreditors function as licensure boards or cartels. Because accreditation is a form of self-governance run by higher education institutions themselves, there is absolutely no incentive for a panel of institutional peers to enable the entrance of a new, outside provider, especially one from the for-profit sector.
It is startling to witness how easily our systems of administration can co-opt and stifle innovation. We tend to enshrine the past by conferring legitimacy on the way we’ve always done things. Creative solutions are vulnerable at this particular moment because they’re viewed as threats to the status quo. This explains why California’s SB 520 bill (a thoughtful bill presented by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg as a scalable way to attend to the thousands of students unable to register for oversubscribed courses and complete their degrees) is now stalled against the tidal backlash from California faculty senates.
Instead of opening up the delivery of approximately 50 of these bottlenecked, introductory courses to already existing online providers, the California systems of higher education are now going to waste millions reinventing the wheel and building their own online courses. Unlike the existing, scalable online courses built by organizations from the private sector, however, these courses, such as the recently publicized California State University (CSU) online offerings, will be capped at 25 to 30 students, which will have little effect on the problem at hand.
The current stalemate between private enterprise and nonprofit organizations is bad for the people who matter the most: the students. The threat that academics sense has nothing to do with the performance outcomes of their students, for if it did, there would be no question that another path must be paved in order to attend to the thousands of students wasting their time and money and taking excess credits that don’t count toward their majors. Meanwhile, these students are simultaneously protracting the opportunity cost of going to college and losing out on the money that they could be earning as employed citizens in our communities.
As deflating as the events of last week were, I remain optimistic that there are plenty of creative risk-takers—“people who have nothing to do with current system” (sic)—who will stay the course and invent solutions outside of our norms and current standards. I hope for the sake of my and all of our children that entrenched institutional interests will ultimately yield to answers from both the public and private sectors. In the words of W.B. Yeats, “[T]he centre cannot hold.” We need to be open to experimenting with new ways of delivering higher education, even if they come from the margins.