In a December 2018 announcement, Secretary DeVos stated her agenda will promote “innovation” in higher education, including evaluating the current accreditation process. Some skeptics suggest this strategic phrasing may be code for reducing or eliminating federal oversight in postsecondary education. Regardless of DeVos’ intentions, many education policy professionals recognize the need to update accreditation standards to meet the demands of 21st Century students and a changing job market.
This announcement is well timed considering Congress’ commitment to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the law that gives accreditation its status in American postsecondary education, by the end of this year. The political climate is ripe for reform, and students may stand to benefit from an emphasis on innovation and a critical review of how quality is measured in colleges and universities.
But, can policy makers actually innovate accreditation? If so, what can students, institutions, and accrediting agencies expect to change?
Barring the removal of federal regulation or oversight, accreditation innovation for traditional colleges and universities will probably resemble reform more than advancement. Colleges and universities may anticipate a shift in focus: from measuring institutional inputs to assessing student outcomes such as graduation and student loan default rates. Doing so will promote accountability as an output of accreditation, and underwrite the relationship between accreditation and student financial aid.
DeVos is open to signing off on new forms of education and credentialing, including alternative platforms; however, it is unclear what accreditation offers these companies. The carrot and stick incentive baked into accreditation is having access to federal student aid. Since they currently do not qualify for accreditation and therefore cannot receive federal funds, the majority of alternative platforms currently on the market have developed business plans focused on offering lower-cost credentials, membership-based programs, and income share agreements (ISAs) to generate revenue. In fact, many of the platforms market themselves as the better or practical alternative to an overpriced degree.
So far these platforms have primarily attracted professionals looking for a career change or income boost. These students may not necessarily need federal funds to pay for such a program. However, accrediting alternative platforms will open up these less expensive education options to individuals who want to use GI Bill money or Pell Grants, and thereby simultaneously diversifying the tech industry and creating new revenue streams for these platforms.
But, accepting federal student aid means agreeing to comply with federal regulations. Title IV funding comes with FERPA, Title IX, and a handful of other requirements. Doing so may inhibit alternative platforms’ agility or undermine their business model.
In addition to access to federal student aid, accreditation offers legitimacy, or at least the signaling thereof. Some alternative platforms, namely MOOCs, struggle to perform due to skepticism of the utility of their credentials in the job market. Without an external quality control assessor deeming these platforms a valid educational option, they may only continue to flounder. However, boot camps with ISAs like General Assembly and Holberton are incentivized to produce employable alumni. Since these platforms are unable to collect on their ISAs until their outgoing students find employment, they must continually review and revise their programs to meet the needs of the job market. Thus, industry functions as the accreditor, offering both utility in the boot camp credential for students and quality assurance for the platform.
In the event alternative platforms elect to comply with the current accreditation model, designed specifically for traditional postsecondary institutions, revisions to the their business practices or programming models may be necessary. The Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) experiment, an Obama-era initiative, gives alternative platforms access to federal student aid via partnerships with an accredited university. In this program alternative platforms function as an extension of their partner university, forcing platforms to amend their operations to resemble that of an accredited institution. Unfortunately, EQUIP participants report experiencing challenges with meeting the most basic accreditation requirements. Of the eight original participating partnerships, three have dropped out of the program and four are still awaiting approval from their quality assurance agency. The only successful partnership to-date, the joint venture between Dallas County Community College District and StraighterLine, has received approval from the U.S. Department of Education to offer an associate’s degree.
Accreditation by proxy thus far has not proven successful. That said, there is no reason why a separate accrediting process cannot be developed to exclusively address the needs of alternative platforms. Make School, a San Francisco based boot camp, is now seeking WASC accreditation through an “incubation” relationship with Dominican University of California. This partnership enables Dominican to utilize Make School’s expertise in developing a minor in computer science and allows Make School to expand their course offerings into areas outside of computer science, which will be necessary for an accredited bachelor’s degree. Under the agreement with WASC, both organizations are required to remain in the partnership until both needs are met and self-sustainable. This model proposes a methodology that allows alternative platforms to seek accreditation without first having to conform to accreditation agency standards.
Conversely, alternative platforms can follow the precedent set by traditional colleges and universities by establishing their own accrediting agencies rather than attempting to conform to the current system. Growth in this market indicates students will continue to pursue higher education through alternative platforms. As of 2018, 95 boot camps in the U.S. and Canada graduated over 20,000 students, a 173% increase over the previous year. There is enough demand in this field to develop a cohort of schools that can establish industry best practices, certify curriculums, and vet student payment agreements.
Still, without direction from the DeVos administration, the idea of innovation in the context of accreditation may be too nebulous to forecast outcomes for both postsecondary institutions and alternative platforms. If alternative platforms want access to federal funds or to be considered major players in the higher education ecosystem, then they must act now while Congress is in the process of reauthorizing HEA. Otherwise, they may have to wait 10+ years for the next reauthorization. . . when it may be too late.