A few weeks ago I wrote about how college accreditors are—unsurprisingly—blocking innovation, but that the long-term solution is unlikely to be a top-down “reforming” of the accreditation system and instead an end-run around the accreditors and existing regulatory scheme by disruptive innovators.

We have observed again and again that regulations rarely change first to allow for disruptive innovations. Disruptive innovations never succeed through a head-on attack against regulations and the network effects that constitute the power of the status quo. 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.

What caught my attention a week later was a piece by Jane Shaw, of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, titled “Subversive Lessons from China.”

In the piece, Shaw suggests some potentially similar conclusions from a recent book about capitalism in China by the now-deceased Ronald Coase, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and Nina Wang. The book, How China Became Capitalist, concludes that China is now a capitalist country, according to Shaw. But what she notes is more interesting is that Coase and Wang argue “the Chinese economic miracle did not come about through the action of the state. In part, it came about through inaction.”

She notes that despite a bevy of government reforms aimed at state-owned enterprises, which produced the majority of goods and services in the Chinese economy, the reforms had little effect and most of the enterprises were privatized or shuttered.

But China did experience a revolution toward capitalism and subsequently rapid growth, but one that was fueled by other sectors—namely farming families and village factories that “grew in the face of the national government’s outright hostility—and in the case of private farming, even prohibition.”

Shaw then asks what the implication is for higher education. Like in China with the state-owned enterprises, she notes that reform in higher education appears to be urgent. Many analysts “recommend big changes like revamping accreditation, modifying federal grant and loan policies, and pressuring universities to focus on learning outcomes.” She notes that the Pope Center endorses many of these reforms.

We, too, believe at the Christensen Institute that many of these sorts of recommendations have merit.

She goes on to say that what the China experience teaches us though is that these reform efforts may not produce much in the way of results, as they “may take too much political maneuvering, too much political capital.”

She explains more in-depth why this may be. The takeaway is that the more likely route to “reforming” higher education may be the “potpourri of activities, both small and large, current and future. These may include greater use of the American Council of Education course-approval system (thus moving toward unbundling of education), expansion of early college, innovations by small schools that depend on enrollment, new business education-qua-apprenticeships (for example, the Minerva Project), online universities such as Western Governors University and UniversityNow, etc. Ironic though it may seem, if the government, the universities, and even reformers concentrate on ‘big’ and ‘important’ problems, they may inadvertently allow alternatives to today’s education to emerge outside their focus of attention.”

In other words, the more likely path to success in transforming higher education may be through the disruptive innovators who go around the regulations and escape the notice of the well-meaning experts focused intently on the hardest-to-solve problems—the pattern we have seen as well in our study of the transformation of countless other sectors.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t continue to try and change existing higher education per se. Although I continue to think this through, first, it’s possible that even as the disruptors may be our best hope for change, the time spent focused on the currently most intractable problems may create the headroom for the disruptors to grow and stay focused appropriately. Second, even as disruption may offer solace that in the long run we can transform higher education, in the short- and medium-term there are millions of students participating in a higher education system that is fundamentally flawed. In the case of Ivy Bridge College, which the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the accrediting body for the North Central United States region, essentially shut down, real people—many of whom are members of minority groups, have low incomes, and are primary givers for children or independents—were affected. Helping these students remains important.

But the lessons Shaw notes are important ones to heed, as they point to where our greatest chances of success in the long term will be. I continue to suspect that in the case of higher education, only the time frame in which our current system of regulation and accreditation will remain in tact is in question.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

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