Historians of this period, possessing the clearsightedness that only time provides, will likely point to online learning as the disruptive technology platform that radically changed higher education, which had remained largely unchanged since the cathedral schools of medieval Europe -- football, beer pong and food courts notwithstanding.
Online learning is already well-understood, well-established and well-respected by those who genuinely know it. But what we now see in higher education is a new wave of innovation that uses online learning, or at least aspects of it, as a starting point. The meteoric growth of the for-profit sector, the emergence of MOOCs, new self-paced competency-based programs, adaptive learning environments, peer-to-peer learning platforms, third-party service providers, the end of geographic limitations on program delivery and more all spring from the maturation of online learning and the technology that supports it. Online learning has provided a platform for rethinking delivery models and much of accreditation is not designed to account for these new approaches.
Until now, regional accreditation has been based on a review of an integrated organization and its activities: the college or university. These were largely cohesive and relatively easy to understand organizational structures where almost everything was integrated to produce the learning experience and degree. Accreditation is now faced with assessing learning in an increasingly disaggregated world with organizations that are increasingly complex, or at least differently complex, including shifting roles, new stakeholders and participants, various contractual obligations and relationships, and new delivery models. There is likely to be increasing pressure for accreditation to move from looking only at the overall whole, the institution, to include smaller parts within the whole or alternatives to the whole: perhaps programs, providers and offerings other than degrees and maybe provided by entities other than traditional institutions. In other words, in an increasingly disaggregated world does accreditation need to become more disaggregated as well?
Take the emergence of competency-based education, which is more profound – if less discussed – than massive open online courses (MOOCs). Our own competency-based program, College for America (CfA), is the first of its kind to so wholly move from any anchoring to the three-credit hour Carnegie Unit that pervades higher education (shaping workload, units of learning, resource allocation, space utilization, salary structures, financial aid regulations, transfer policies, degree definitions and more). The irony of the three-credit hour is that it fixes time while it leaves variable the actual learning. In other words, we are really good at telling the world how long students have sat at their desks and we are really quite poor at saying how much they have learned or even what they learned. Competency-based education flips the relationship and says let time be variable, but make learning well-defined, fixed and non-negotiable.
In our CfA program, there are no courses. There are 120 competencies – “can do” statements, if you will – precisely defined by well-developed rubrics. Students demonstrate mastery of those competencies through completion of “tasks” that are then assessed by faculty reviewers using the rubrics. Students can’t “slide by” with a C or a B; they have either mastered the competencies or they are still working on them. When they are successful, the assessments are maintained in a web-based portfolio as evidence of learning. Students can begin with any competency at any level (there are three levels moving from smaller, simpler competencies to higher level, complicated competencies) and go as fast or as slow as they need to be successful. We offer the degree for $2,500 per year, so an associate degree for $5,000 if a student takes two years and for as little as $1,250 if they complete in just six months (an admittedly formidable task for most). CfA is the first program of its kind to be approved by a regional accreditor, NEASC in our case, and is the first to seek approval for Title IV funding through the “direct assessment of learning” provisions. At the time of this writing, CfA has successfully passed the first stage review by the Department of Education and is still moving through the approval process.
The radical possibility offered in the competency-based movement is that traditional higher education may lose its monopoly on delivery models. Accreditors have for some time put more emphasis on learning outcomes and assessment, but the competency-based education movement privileges them above all else. When we excel at both defining and assessing learning, we open up enormous possibilities for new delivery models, creativity and innovation. It’s not a notion that most incumbent providers welcome, but in terms of finding new answers to the cost, access, quality, productivity and relevance problems that are reaching crisis proportions in higher education, competency-based education may be the most dramatic development in higher education in hundreds of years. For example, the path to legitimacy for MOOCs probably lies in competency-based approaches, and while they can readily tackle the outcomes or competency side of the equation, they still face formidable challenges of reliable, trustworthy and rigorous assessment at scale (at least while trying to remain free). Well-developed competency-based approaches can also help undergird the badges movement, demanding that such efforts be transparent about the claims associated with a badge and the assessments used to validate learning or mastery.
Competency-based education may also provide accreditors with a framework for more fundamentally rethinking assessment. It would shift accreditation to looking much harder at learning outcomes and competencies, the claims an entity is making for the education it provides and for the mechanisms it uses for knowing and demonstrating that the learning has occurred. The good news here is that such a dual focus would free accreditors from so much attention on inputs, like organization, stakeholder roles and governance, and instead allow for the emergence of all sorts of new delivery models. The bad news is that we are still working on how to craft well designed learning outcomes and conduct effective assessment. It’s harder than many think. A greater focus on outcomes and assessment also begs other important questions for accreditors:
How will they rethink standards to account for far more complex and disaggregated business models which might have a mix of “suppliers,” some for-profit and some nonprofit, and which look very different from traditional institutions?
Will they only accredit institutions or does accreditation have to be disaggregated too? Might there by multiple forms of accreditation: for institutions, for programs, for courses, for MOOCs, for badges and so on? At what level of granularity?
CBE programs are coming. College for America is one example, but other institutions have announced efforts in this area. Major foundations are lining up behind the effort (most notably the Lumina and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations), and the Department of Education appears to be relying on accreditors to attest to the quality and rigor of those programs. While the Department of Education is moving cautiously on this question, accreditors might want to think through what a world untethered to the credit hour might look like. Might there be two paths to accreditation: the traditional “institutional path” and the “competency-based education path,” with the former looking largely unchanged and the latter using rigorous outcomes and assessment review to support more innovation than current standards now do? Innovation theory would predict that new innovative CBE accreditation pathway would come to improve the incumbent accreditation processes and standards.
This last point is important: accreditors need to think about their relationship to innovation. If the standards are largely built to assess incumbent models and enforced by incumbents, they must be by their very nature conservative and in service of the status quo. Yet the nation is in many ways frustrated with the status quo and unwilling to support it in the old ways. Frankly, they believe we are failing, and the ways they think we are failing depend on whom you ask. But never has the popular press (and thus the public and policy makers) been so consumed with the problems of traditional higher education and intrigued by the alternatives. In some ways, accreditors are being asked to shift or at least expand their role to accommodate these new models.
If regional accreditors are unable to rise to that challenge they might see new alternative accreditors emerge and be left tethered to incumbent models that are increasingly less relevant or central to how higher education takes place 10 years from now. There is time. As has been said, we frequently overestimate the amount of change in the next two years and the dramatically underestimate the amount of change in the next 10. The time is now for regional accreditors to re-engineer the paths to accreditation. In doing so they can not only be ready for that future, they can help usher it into reality.
Paul J. LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University. This essay is adapted from writing produced for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges as part of a convening to look at the future of accreditation. WASC has given permission for it to be shared more widely and without restriction.
The American taxpayer has a huge stake in higher education accreditation. In order to access some of the $160 billion in federal student aid dollars, colleges and universities must be approved by a recognized regional or national accrediting body. In the absence of an alternative, the accreditation process has come to serve as the federal government’s primary quality control mechanism in higher education. Yet this process is largely hidden from public view and not well-understood.
That’s why the recent announcement from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of the country’s six regional higher education accrediting bodies, that it will regularly make all of its accreditation reports available to the public is so important.
To those familiar with financial markets, product safety, environmental protection or a host of other sectors where public reporting is a given, it may seem puzzling that such an announcement is considered innovative. But when it comes to our colleges and universities, WASC’s initiative is downright revolutionary. That WASC is taking this worthwhile step ought to be applauded. That this step is only now taking place tells you everything you need to know about the sorry state of quality control and transparency in higher education.
Despite the high stakes for taxpayers, accreditation is opaque -- groups of faculty and administrators recruited from other colleges and universities visit the campus, assess its financial and academic health, and provide a report on whether the college should maintain its accreditation. Typically, this happens every five years. The colleges themselves must take time to engage in “self-study” and prepare reams of documentation — sometimes down to the number of volumes in the library. All of this is expensive: the provost of Princeton recently told a Department of Education panel that its most recent accreditation cost the university about $1 million.
What do we get for all of that time and money? Not much, at least in terms of quality control: few colleges ever lose their accreditation, and schools with low graduation rates, financial issues, or other problems often remain fully accredited. For example, WASC accredits a range of institutions, from elites like Stanford and UCLA, both of which graduate 90 percent or more of their students, to less prominent colleges like California State University, Dominguez Hills; Alliant International University; and San Diego Christian College, where graduation rates for BA-seekers hover around 30 percent. Other institutions on WASC’s roster, including Cogswell Polytechnic College, Vanguard University of Southern California and the California Institute of Integral Studies, have failed recent Department of Education “financial responsibility” audits.
And while accreditors may uncover such areas where institutions need to improve, these details are not routinely made public. Until WASC stepped up, none of the accrediting bodies systematically published the results of its reviews. Instead, most colleges and universities simply announce that they’ve passed another round of accreditation, while the occasional news item vaguely reports on colleges that are “on probation” or “at risk” of losing their accreditation. Otherwise, all accredited schools bear the same seal of approval, whether they have a sterling record of success or a troubled history.
Only in very rare instances do schools lose accreditation. Just this month, WASC rejected the for-profit Ashford University’s bid for renewed accreditation, based largely on what reviewers described as its high dropout rates. And here in the Washington, D.C., area, Southeastern University lost its accreditation in 2009 after a long stretch of probationary periods, threats, and scandal. As Kevin Carey reported in Washington Monthly in 2010, by the time it shuttered, Southeastern had onlysix full-time faculty to teach over thirty degree programs.
As anyone who has ever read an accreditation report can tell you, making these documents public will do little to help prospective students in the near term. You need a higher education glossary and a helping of patience to even begin to decipher the jargon. Even then, the results are often difficult to interpret, and almost impossible to use in a comparative way.
But WASC’s move is rhetorically important for what it signals to the insular, risk-averse, and often defensive culture of higher education. The days of hiding behind accreditation and benefiting from its imprimatur will slowly come to an end. Demands for better information about higher education quality and value -- whether defined in terms of student learning, labor market outcomes, or return on investment -- are growing from the statehouse to the White House.
Colleges, universities, and accrediting bodies that continue to resist this movement will find themselves unable to compete with those that embrace it. And while accreditors will rarely put a college out of business, armies of prospective students equipped with a clearer notion of quality and cost can do just that.
Andrew P. Kelly is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Mark Schneider is a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a visiting scholar at AEI.