As a back-up to President Obama's State of the Union speech, the White House has released The President's Plan for a Strong Middle Class and a Strong America. A much commented-on sentence in a section with the challenging title Holding colleges accountable for cost, value and quality reads:
The President will call on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid,either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.
The mention of "alternative system of accreditation" has understandably caused considerable discussion, and I would be remiss if I did not join that discussion. Before that, however, there is a very important point contained in the President's message that I think has not gotten appropriate attention.
"Value" and "student outcomes" and their demonstration clearly play a central role in the President's thoughts about higher education. Higher education has always fought the idea that there is any appropriate way to measure the value of higher education. It is much too complicated, multifaceted, personal, etc. But guess what - when your product costs as much as a pretty nice house, people begin to demand some useful metrics by which to evaluate it. The demand for those metrics is not going to go away, as most of traditional higher education seems to hope.
The very real danger is that metrics of value will be created by people who do not have any deep understanding of the benefits and outcomes of higher education because the higher education community has thrown up its hands in horror and refused to cooperate. Refusal to take a leadership role in creating these metrics will certainly create a self-fulfilling prophecy that "value metrics will lead to a McDonaldization of higher education."
The European higher education community has, through the Bologna Process, grappled with ideas of metrics of educational value and the need of individual institutions to have differing approaches and differing specific outcomes. We have not had a similar discussion in the US. But the higher education community does need to have such a discussion in the near future if it does not want value metrics to be created and imposed externally.
We have heard repeatedly from both political parties that both the government and the consumer need to have a clearer picture of what we claim our student outcomes should be, and how we are going to measure our success in meeting our claims. It is just not going to go away, and time for us to act ourselves is running out.
As noted above, the President's mention of creating an alternative process of accreditation has caused many comments, both positive and negative. There are many reasons to support the present approach, which has served the country and higher education reasonably well. Some have suggested that this warning will make traditional accreditors become more welcoming to programs based on learning outcomes, such as used by WGU (in practice, if not officially) and more recently by SNHU. My guess is that suggestion is correct, and welcome indeed.
However, it is well known that successful businesses have enormous difficulties in responding to radical changes in their industries. Life built on only minor changes in the status quo is part of their DNA, and they can't imagine how to operate under very changed conditions. I suspect that will also prove to be true for our traditional accreditors, and that they will be unable to respond effectively to institutions that are bringing forward radically different approaches to higher education. They will want to respond appropriately, but traditional metrics of educational excellence will just keep pushing to the fore of their considerations.
I have written about numerous potential disruptors in the higher education space, and every day sees the announcement of another new group operating with a very non traditional approach to higher education. Very creative, non traditional new accrediting approaches will be required to determine which of these new organizations should receive accreditation (because they are producing real value for students) and which should not (because they are simply clever and interesting, but do not produce sufficient value for students). I don't believe that the traditional accreditors will be able to create these new approaches to accreditation any more than successful traditional corporations are able to change when their industry changes radically.
I think that the current accreditation process can evolve so that it can handle evolutionary changes of the type that Obama mentions in traditional institutions. But if we want to see the appearance of radically different forms of higher education that provide real value to students and society, I think we need a an alternative form of accreditation for those using nontraditional approaches.