In many respects, higher education in the United States – with credits awarded on time a student sits in a chair – remains trapped in the 19th century and has been slow to embrace technology.
Online education from traditionally accredited colleges has been available since at least 1999, but almost always at the same high tuition cost as the traditional “physical” courses. New ideas, such as tuition-free massive open online courses (MOOCs), are now emerging, but are generally not accredited.
For a true revolution to occur, regulation will need to change along with the technology. The key advance would be to establish a new private sector accrediting body, the “Modern States Accrediting Agency,” that would ensure the quality and reputation of the innovative courses, make the credits transferable into the traditional system and which would be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an approved accreditor in order to qualify students for federal student aid.
The Department of Education began its first online education pilot program in 1999. In 2006, it allowed institutions to offer all of their courses online. However, these courses were offered by institutions accredited in the traditional way, with student enrollment in the courses kept limited, and with tuition set as high (or even higher) than tuition for the physical alternative.
The paradigm began to shift in 2011 when Stanford University offered three of its courses online, free of charge, to any person anywhere who chose to take them.
Since then other innovators have continued to introduce MOOCs, notably led by the nation’s most respected traditional universities, such as MIT and Harvard. MIT, for example, is creating MITx, which is intended to offer a great number of MIT’s courses free of charge or nearly so; taught by MIT’s renowned faculty; and with graded assignments, tests, online discussion groups, online professor “office hours” and other quality advances.
The problem with MOOCs, though, is that there is usually no mechanism for obtaining accreditation and, in U.S. higher education, accreditation is the “coin of the realm,” which gives a degree its value. As a result, most MOOCs can offer students only a letter of completion, a pat on the head and no degree. Few other institutions or graduate schools will recognize completion of a MOOC course for credit, and employers do not know how to judge the student’s level of accomplishment.
Schools like MIT should not be forced to dilute the power of their brand by being forced to give their regular degree to students who simply take some of their tuition-free online courses. However, it is equally inappropriate to give no value to the online learning that occurs in a MOOC, particularly if a student can complete a high-quality, rigorous course and then prove mastery of the material on a separate, proctored, certifying exam.
In the traditional system, a degree is accredited because the degree-granting institution is itself accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education. The accrediting agencies (such as the Middle States Commission on Higher Education or the New England Association of Schools and Colleges) are private sector, self-regulatory groups which, in most cases, were created nearly a century ago by the member institutions themselves. The best of these agencies were later recognized by the Department of Education and included on its list of approved accreditors.
Today students can only qualify for federal financial aid if their institution has been accredited by one of these recognized agencies, and these accreditors’ decisions control access to the more than $150 billion in federal aid paid out to students each year. The traditional accrediting agencies, which were founded long ago to serve the needs of the traditional institutions, are not well-suited to lead technological and social innovations that are alternatives to the traditional system. A few experiments with traditionally accredited MOOCs are under way.
However, for the most rapid and effective progress, America needs a new, innovation-focused accreditor, Modern States, which would also be recognized by the Department of Education and which could accredit providers of emerging technologies and ideas in order to drive down costs, drive up quality and to shape federal aid programs in new and effective ways.
Unlike traditional accreditors, Modern States would be able to accredit specific courses, not just the degree-granting institution as a whole. For example, it could recognize that the freshman physics MOOC from MITx is of high quality, and then develop a widely available, proctored test for students who complete that course, similar to an SAT exam or CPA exam.
Students who complete the preapproved, tuition-free MOOC and also pass the confirmatory Modern States assessment would earn accredited course hours from Modern States itself. Enough such courses in the right scope and sequence (say physics from MITx, poetry from Harvard, theology from Notre Dame and so on) could lead to a fully accredited Modern States degree. Modern States would also approve courses and develop tests in vocational areas, in career training fields and at the two-year and community-college level, in order to serve all types of students.
The creation of Modern States could then enable a whole field of academic innovations to bloom, including blends of “bricks and clicks” and new types of federal financial aid models. For example, students might take their core lectures tuition-free and online from a nationally renowned professor in a MOOC, and then attend supplementary weekly study groups with a live professor and other students in their home towns, all at a lower overall cost than a traditional course today.
Similarly, students might take their first year of introductory courses all online for free, but then transfer to a traditional college for the last three years, lowering their total educational costs by 25 percent. Students who complete their educations at a low cost or no cost to the federal government might even be paid a federal bonus upon completing their degree and successfully entering the work force. In this way, the self-motivated Abe Lincolns of tomorrow could finish their higher educations debt-free and with cash in the bank. Meanwhile, U.S. taxpayers would save money.
Modern States could also lead the way in areas unrelated to MOOCs, such as competency-based exams and on-the-job skills training. For example, if there is a national shortage of skilled welders, and if an employer trains a worker in welding who then passes the Modern States assessment, the worker could earn a course credit in welding while the employer itself might be paid some stipend as an “educational institution of one.”
The traditional accreditors were founded by their member institutions, but – with a few exceptions – traditional institutions are not likely to be the best champions for low-cost alternatives to themselves. Modern States should be chiefly formed by a voluntary association of philanthropies and nongovernmental organizations concerned with increasing access to high-quality education while lowering its cost -- groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the World Bank and so on. Employer and labor groups could join as well, as could providers of the innovative courses, student consumer groups and others.
Membership contributions could fund a staff that would develop a starting catalog of approved courses from the already-existing universe of MOOC and related offerings. The staff would then work with testing organizations to develop the independent assessments needed to prove student mastery of the material. The catalog would cover a range of academic and vocational fields, and grow and evolve over time.
The ultimate path to success for Modern States would be to keep its testing standards high and rigorous so that employers, traditional institutions and the world at large will see that the students are truly deserving of the degree credits. In this way, Modern States could function like a universal version of the CPA exam developers, who have become an accepted standard of testing and quality in the accounting field.
Once Modern States is formed, it would write criteria for granting accreditation that would be aligned with the Secretary of Education’s criteria for recognition of accrediting agencies. After applying these criteria, Modern States could petition the Department of Education for recognition. The petition would be reviewed by staff and by a federal advisory committee that advises the Secretary on whether to recognize accreditors. If the Department grants recognition, then students at the institutions and programs accredited by Modern States would be eligible to participate in federal student aid programs.
Transferability of credits to more traditionally accredited programs would be negotiated by Modern States through reciprocity agreements with other accreditors, as supported by the Department of Education. Modern States would be a private-sector organization, not a government organization. However, political leaders in both parties could help achieve educational goals by expressing clear support for the Modern States approach as outlined here.
In its best form, traditional higher education is one of America’s great treasures, and no online program is ever likely to equal the experience of four years on campus at a great school. However, the high cost and limited availability of such traditional best-in-class programs have placed them increasingly out of reach to many striving students in America and around the world. By unleashing the power of technology and social innovation, Modern States could be the key regulatory mechanism to make education more accessible and affordable, and to bring higher education more fully into the 21st century.
David Bergeron, the former acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, is vice president of postsecondary education policy at the Center for American Progress.
Steven Klinsky, a New York-based businessman and philanthropist, has been active in education reform since 1993.