Innovation and Accreditation by David J. Staley

Some of the readers of my book Alternative Universities, while excited at the idea of enterprise-level innovation in higher education, tell me in the same breath that it would be difficult to actually start any of these universities.  It’s an interesting thought experiment, these readers insist, but regional accreditors would never sign off on models that are so radically unlike existing institutions. John Lombardi has observed that competition between institutions often leads to cookie-cutter curricula, with the result being very little differentiation between institutions.  “Regulation reinforces this standardization of content through accreditation, a process that encourages or coerces colleges and universities to deliver remarkably similar undergraduate programs.”  The current system of accreditation might be one of the more notable breaks on innovation in higher education. 

Western Governors University—the institution that helped develop the competency-based model of higher education—was almost shuttered because its innovative model ran afoul of the U.S. Department of Education.  In 2017, the Department’s Office of Inspector General called on WGU to return over $7 million in federal financial aid after an audit concluded that the university was ineligible to participate in Title IV programs.   Among other things, Title IV stipulates that there be “regular and substantive” contact between teachers and students to be qualified as distance education, as opposed to merely being a correspondence course.  Losing student financial aid would have had the effect of emptying WGU of enrollment.  And any other institution looking to innovate how it teaches—let alone proposing a radical new mission for the university– would think again after seeing what was happening to the very popular WGU.  The Department of Education eventually relented, but the episode nevertheless demonstrated that regulation can have the effect of halting innovation before it is even implemented. 

Regional accreditors have also proven to be a break on innovation.  The case of Ivy Bridge is illustrative.  Ivy Bridge was an on-line college, a collaboration between Tiffin University in Ohio and the California-based ed tech company Altius.  After initially giving it its approval to the partnership, the Higher Learning Commission reversed course after it raised concerns that the for-profit company had too much control over the enterprise.  Rather than risk its own accreditation, Tiffin University ultimately ended the arrangement.   “Innovations often require new capabilities,” note Michael Horn and Alana Dunagan, “and partnering with another organization to help build those capabilities can be a smart choice.  But in this case, Tiffin University was blocked from doing so.  HLC’s concerns about the business model ultimately outweighed its prior assessment of Ivy Bridge’s strong outcomes.”  Institutions of higher learning are frequently accused of being strategically uncreative, slow and lumbering dinosaurs that seem impervious to innovation.  I wonder if one reason for this state of affairs is that the accreditors often stifle innovative ideas.  Institutions get the message: that it is better to do what has always been done—to do what everyone else is doing–than to risk not being accredited.  As Judith Eaton, President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation has observed, “Few accreditors are willing to risk establishing or revising standards or policies without an eye toward what will be acceptable to the federal government.” 

To induce innovation in higher education, to ensure the organizational diversity of many Alternative Universities, perhaps it is time to reform accreditation.  “As an enterprise with a venerable tradition,” write Kevin Kinser and Susan D. Phillips, and while acknowledging that accreditors have embraced some innovation in higher education, “accreditation is now hard-pressed to maintain its standing as a reliable and valued policy framework that undergirds the structure of higher education.”  If Kinser and Phillips are correct, then what is to be done?  They propose one idea that I find especially enticing:  “Options such as developing an accreditation agency that is specifically designed to accommodate innovative and outside-the-box ideas may have merit as a way to place institutions that are trying out new, experimental activities into their own category with a different level of oversight connected to the risk they pose.”

I would like to propose that the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching serve as that accrediting agency for new, experimental ideas. Carnegie has a long history of advancing innovation in higher education–The Carnegie Unit, the Carnegie Classification—establishing frameworks and building infrastructures within which universities might effectively operate, making it the ideal institution to serve as the accreditor of pedagogical, organizational and epistemological novelty in higher education.    

With an innovation accreditor guiding them and granting them permission, colleges and universities might be unleashed to tackle the unimaginative uniformity that afflicts so much of higher education. 

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