Education

Open letter to Obama: Accreditation is killing the tech-fueled revitalization of higher ed

Image Credit: Prabhu B Doss

Paul Freedman is the Founder and CEO of Altius Education.

Dear Mr. President,

You and I share a common goal. The U.S. higher education system is in crisis, and we have both made it a personal mission and a professional commitment to turn the situation around. Having grown up on college campuses — as the son of a college professor and a research administrator — I have committed my life’s work to ensuring that students of all background have access to a transformative education.

I am an education entrepreneur, and you need my help as much as I need yours.

I am encouraged to see that your platform for reform includes a push for technology-enabled innovation and competency-based learning. These are ideas that can really change the landscape of higher education to fit the needs of today’s students, lower costs, and improve quality. However, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, these are not new ideas.  Myself and many other education innovators have been pouring tremendous effort and investment into developing these approaches for years. We have made a lot of progress, but as you know, these efforts have so far failed to drive radical reform in the higher education system.

Why?  There is one major roadblock holding us back – an institutionalized lack of adaptation – and that barrier is our broken system of accreditation.

To the extent that there is any public awareness of what accreditors do, it is naturally assumed that they are in place to protect students and ensure the quality of academic programs. If they are indeed stewards of the public trust responsible for ensuring the quality of our higher education system, then accreditors are also responsible for its outcomes and therefore share a large portion of the blame for the failures in higher education that we see today.

Accreditors act as judge, jury, and executioner for most things in higher education.

For a university to enter into a new partnership, experiment with a new delivery model, or even launch a new degree program, they need approval from their accreditor. And of course, with accreditation comes eligibility for financial aid funding, so acting against an accreditor’s wishes would be like suicide for an institution.

How did this little-known group gain this much power to over the system? Accreditors originated in 1895 as essentially social clubs for universities to share best practices. Then, with the Korean War GI Bill, they filled a need to have some form of screening to determine which institutions could receive government subsidies. Since that time, year after year and decade after decade, as more government money has gone into supporting higher education, the accreditors have increasingly gained power and control over the higher education system and its outcomes.

This would be fine except that peer review and collegiality are hallmarks of accreditation, and they act to protect the status quo – their own power and their traditional way of operating. To be accredited you need to look like everyone else. How can you innovate, or, to steal Apple’s line, “think different” in a system that forces you to be the same? The tragedy is that when the accreditors protect the status quo and their own power, it is the students, the tax payers, and the U.S. economic viability that get hurt.

To really reform the system, we must do something remove these barriers.

Let me provide an example that is close to my heart.

The Higher Learning Commission, one of the six regional accreditors, recently demanded the shutdown of Ivy Bridge College of Tiffin University, a new model that educated some of the nation’s most underserved, non-traditional students, with 93 percent of students being eligible for Pell grants, more than 70 percent being adult learners, 50 percent women who care for dependents and 82 percent first-generation college students. The program was designed to provide a pathway to a bachelor’s degree in a highly-supported, flexible environment that these students need to be successful.

Right in line with the reform efforts you describe, Ivy Bridge’s goal was to provide accessible, quality education effectively and ultimately at a lower cost by leveraging new technology. The program was on a promising trajectory, producing outcomes that were between 52 percent and 132 percent better than community college averages.

The problem?

Ivy Bridge was supported through a partnership between a traditional university, Tiffin University in Ohio, and Altius Education, a for-profit education services company, which I founded. Ivy Bridge College represented a new type of university partnership, and it wanted to leverage technology to fundamentally change the way universities serve high-need students who are capable but underprepared to be successful in college without significant support. This is a student population that other universities can’t or won’t touch because they need so many additional resources to succeed. Ivy Bridge was exactly the kind of reform you are seeking, almost to the letter, but this new model was viewed as a threat by the Higher Learning Commission, so we were shut down.

Ivy Bridge College isn’t alone in its experience. It is no surprise that accreditors haven’t yet embraced the notion of credit-bearing MOOCs, which could lower the cost of a college degree. Nor is it surprising that competency-based education (which has been used by corporations and the military since the ‘60s) is now just being approved in “pilot” form by accreditors. Nor is it surprising that other disruptive models are still seeking accreditor approval.

So, Mr. President, my appeal is this:  As you make this critical push for reform, don’t forget to clear the path for the innovators like me who are trying to work with you.  Reform not just the funding system, but also the accreditation system it the funding is tied to so innovation is rewarded, quality is ensured, and higher education can deliver on its promise of access and opportunity for all Americans.

Sincerely,

Paul Freedman

Founder and CEO, Altius Education

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