Accreditation is bigger than a chicken-and-egg problem

Accreditation defines excellence according to an existing set of value propositions. “Because there are so few measures of actual quality of outcomes in higher education,” USC Provost Emeritus Lloyd Armstrong explains, “this naturally leads to considerable regulation of the resources and processes traditionally required to create such excellence.”

Accreditation does not do an adequate job of measuring quality, even with its member institutions—not to mention the more modularized and unbundled kinds of learning that are gaining traction at the margins of the higher education ecosystem. Manning even acknowledges that accreditation is like “a bet that, based on current evidence, the institution will continue to offer an acceptable level of quality in the education it provides.” It’s not exactly heartening though if the only lever and link to federal financial aid is, at best, an approximation.

The de facto measures therefore have been perceived quality. With a dearth of data around the outcomes of graduates, prospective students are left with imprecise proxies such as brand, prestige, rankings, and price. We need to figure out better measures of quality particularly as the gamut of postsecondary learning pathways widens and resembles less and less the kinds of offerings traditionally found at colleges and universities today.

It seems likely that there will be a need for some new seal of approval—outside of accreditation—for alternative learning providers. I’ve explained in another blog how non-accredited institutions with more to prove would be the ideal sandbox in which to test what my colleague Michael Horn calls the Quality-Value Index. For the short-term and especially so long as federal financial aid dollars are desirable, access to different and transparent performance metrics and student outcomes might enable non-accredited providers access to Title IV money.

But another provocative, albeit long-term, solution exists that accreditors and many institutions tend to underestimate: the obviation of accreditors as well as the need for financial aid dollars. Who better than employers to assess the quality of alternative—not to mention, affordable—learning pathways? As the ultimate consumers of students, employers have the ability—and, it would seem, the incentive—to validate learning experiences that may deliver prospective job candidates that are just as qualified—if not better suited—for the opportunities at hand.

Industry validation has the potential to serve as a powerful mechanism to validate upstart providers and ultimately override the existing stranglehold of college rankings and accreditation. That would be truly disruptive and upend the current chicken-and-egg games around access to federal dollars.

Michelle R. Weise, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute studying the theory of disruptive innovation and its unique ability to clarify the changing academic terrain in higher education. This article first appeared in the Clayton Christensen Institute blog.

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