Innovator or Protector of Status Quo?

Critics say accreditation is a barrier to innovative thinking in higher education. Twenty years of evidence shows otherwise, Adrianna Kezar argues.

April 11, 2014

Policy makers and entrepreneurs decry accreditation for slowing innovation on campuses and reinforcing the status quo. For example, the American Enterprise Institute and American Council of Trustees have written papers and held sessions on the problem of accreditation holding back innovation. The Heritage Foundation constantly critiques accreditation. A 2013 Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions focused on questions of how accreditation is blocking innovation. And in blog postings, commentators decry accreditation for closing down for-profit providers such as Altuis Education.

When claims like these are made, limited evidence or single anecdotes are presented to support the case. I am quite surprised by the attention these claims have been given, especially when I have 20 years of data to demonstrate that accreditation supports innovation and change on campuses. 

I have conducted 20 major studies on institutional change since the mid-1990s. I have studied over 300 campuses working to bring about pedagogical and curricular innovations, assessment, technology, STEM reform, student success initiatives, and many other types of changes.(Here's more information about these studies,)

Accreditation is one of the key levers propelling campuses to use innovative practices.  While I did not set out to study accreditation, it has emerged in each study I conduct as both a guide and source of pressure on institutions for important changes.  It supports administrators’ efforts to gain faculty and staff interest and support for changes.  Furthermore, it has been used by faculty and staff from the bottom up to bring attention to needed changes or gain support for better infrastructure to integrate innovations into the campus, e.g., changing promotion and tenure, technology infrastructure, institutional research support, professional development, etc. 

Accreditation provides a place to thoughtfully implement changes that last and will be sustained because it engages multiple stakeholders in discussions about the change.  It is hard for me to believe that these 300 campuses were an anomaly when they were randomly chosen, and when accreditation appears to have played a role in encouraging so many different kinds of innovations. The results of my studies have also been confirmed by the recent NILOA study that showed accreditation was the most significant factor in campuses using assessment to improve teaching/learning and toward decision-making. 

In the face of actual data to the contrary, why does the notion that accreditation is an innovation blocker receive so much traction?  Moneyed interests want to move forward with practices not informed by evidence and institutions -- often for-profits, and their allies in government --  want to utilize new approaches that have not been proven to support student learning or to enhance quality. 

Accreditation is seen as blocking innovation when it inquires about unproven ideas being implemented on campuses.  I think questioning about the evidence to support an innovation is good.  I don’t want campuses pursuing initiatives where we have no evidence or research to support that they work.  I have seen the increasing pressures on campuses to adopt practices that will increase revenues, even when we have no idea whether the practices (a cheap new technology platform, for example) will support student learning and quality education. 

The entrepreneurs that push unproven innovations don’t like to be questioned, even when the questioning is valid. It is typically these individuals who are critical of accreditation as they see this as an impediment to implementation of new products and approaches from which they might profit. 

So rather than detering innovation, accreditation is a beacon for meaningful and evidence-based innovation.  The other type of innovation – unproven – well, I am not so sure higher education needs it or the moneyed interests behind such changes that are creeping into the everyday dialogue and culture of campuses now.  It is something we should resist. 

Critics of accreditation should look for actual evidence of it blocking widespread innovation (that does not exist to my knowledge) and spend more time focused on the data and evidence that accreditation does support meaningful change. 

But most importantly, those of us in higher education need to do more to challenge these suspect claims.  

Why? First, because the notion that accreditation blocks innovation is one of the major arguments for considering alternatives to accreditation. 

Second, the alternatives to accreditation that are offered or may be likely to come are not going to help promote meaningful change; rather they may push the enterprise in directions that compromise important aspects of the mission. For example, the federal ratings will likely compromise access by focusing on retention; institutions will admit more highly qualified students to improve retention rates. 

Third, this narrative actually prevents institutions from capitalizing as much as they could on accreditation for change.  Negative views can actual make people harness this lever less over time, taking away its power and efficacy. 

Can accreditation become a bureaucratic exercise?  Yes, certainly on some campuses officials do not engage the process authentically. But that is a very different problem than stifling innovation.  Maybe accreditation isn’t perfect and can be improved, but the critique that it prevents innovation is simply wrongheaded and unfounded.


Adrianna Kezar is professor at the Rossier School of Education and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. She also directs the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.


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