Goldie Blumenstyk recently published a very nice description of the accreditation issues that led to the shut down of the generally acclaimed for-profit/nonprofit partnership of Altius Education and Tiffin College. As Blumenstyk points out, there are critics who feel that this demonstrates that the accreditation system is broken, and others who say that it has done what it was designed to do. It may be that both positions are correct, as I shall discuss in this post.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have connections to both parties. I was on the advisory board of Altius until it closed down recently, and Sylvia Manning, President of the HLC (which challenged the partnership), was my Executive Vice Provost at USC for several years and remains a good friend. I have no interest in getting into a discussion of the merits of the decision of HLC, but rather would like to put it into a larger context of the strengths and limitations of the accreditation system.
My approach to understanding the strengths and limitations of accreditation is based on the business model of higher education that I discussed in How can we think about the wave of new innovations in higher education? I start by reviewing some of the key aspects and insights of general business models and what they say about characteristics of higher education institutions. Then I will move on to the ways in which these characteristics affect accreditation.
This picture showing the four components of a general business model comes from Disrupting College by Christensen, Horn, Caldera, and Soares. The arrows emphasize that all elements of the business model are really enormously interdependent. It is very difficult in general to create the elements of these components in a way that leads to a self - consistent whole. For example, the resources and processes needed to make a product that meets a certain value proposition may be so costly that the profit formula will not work. Many cycles of change may then be required in all components of the business model in order to bring about the necessary interdependent stability. Once that difficult-to-achieve stability is found, the successful enterprise becomes very resistant to major changes in the model. Thus, the well known conservatism of American higher education with regards significant change is simply an expression of a universal behaviour of very successful enterprises.
Of course, change is a reality of life, so business models cannot be frozen in time. Customer interests may change, prices of inputs may vary, technology advances open up new options, and competitors must be bested. Most of these changes will be incremental in character and can be incorporated relatively easily within the basic business model, usually resulting in a product with either an improved value proposition or lower costs. These changes are called sustaining, and generally are part of competition-driven improvements. In higher education, sustaining changes include such things as increasing technology in teaching, improved classrooms, more faculty research, and better residence halls and dining facilities.
While sustaining improvements generally are welcomed by most of the buyers of the product, there will be some customers who find that the new improved value proposition actually makes the product better than they need. These customers are over-served, paying for aspects of the product that they will not use. Over time, this population of over-served buyers grows as the product undergoes continuing sustaining innovations. Thus, for example, part-time adult learners focused on career advancement are increasingly overserved by most improvements in campus life and faculty research.
A significant change in resources or processes opens up the possibility that an entirely new and different business model optimized around that new resource can be created to produce a product similar to the existing product. Almost invariably, this new-business-model (NBM) product is both much less expensive than the original product, and has a value proposition that is significantly inferior when viewed through the lens of the value proposition of the original product. However, this new product may do the jobs that the over-served customers of the original product want done better than the original product, and do it at a lower cost. Thus the over-served community will desert the original product and become a major part of the first customer base for the NBM product. This use of the new resource in creating NBM product is said to be potentially disruptive since in time the NBM product may improve and attract a larger and larger share of the customers of the original product.
One of the most interesting results of Christensen's work on innovation is that existing very successful companies often see that a new business model built around some new resource has the potential to disrupt their own business model, but almost always are unable to act on that knowledge in a way that ultimately protects their company. The key reason why this is true is central to understanding the role of accreditation in higher education.
People in a very successful enterprise believe strongly in the value proposition of that enterprise - it defines excellence for them. Because of the interlocking nature of the components of the business model, the resources and the processes used to create that value proposition are part of the definition of excellence as well. As a consequence, any major change in any part of the business model signals to these people a step away from excellence. One has only to read the comments of faculty groups when faced with some change in their business model to see how their defense of traditional understandings of quality and excellence defines their responses (e.g. the letter from the Philosophy Dept at San Jose State). This focus on traditional quality measures assures that if the new resource is to be utilized by the successful enterprise, it will be done in a way that does not significantly change the existing business model.
An important consequence of this mindset for accreditation is that the quality offered by the value proposition of the new business model is very low when viewed from the perspective of the quality definitions held by the members of the very successful organization. As such, it is easy for members of the successful organization to conclude that the buyers of the NBM product are either stupid or have been mislead. In fact, often these buyers have made a very rational choice in picking a product that most closely met their own needs, rather than the needs that the successful organization would project upon them. These customers simply have a different definition of quality.
Accreditation is carried out by membership organizations such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). The Senior College and University Commission of WASC has as its constituent members those higher education institutions that it has accredited. Although there is a great variety in size, mission, resources, etc amongst the constituent members, they almost all share a rather uniform, traditional view of the role higher education, and of the resources and procedures that are necessary to realize that role. The faculty of each of these constituent institutions naturally believe that what they do defines quality in their educational sector.
Since the membership essentially defines the role and mission of the accreditors, it follows that the accrediting standards and policies should focus on increasing excellence in higher education as it is understood by the members. As I argued above, these internalized definitions of excellence actually call for the stability of the business model. Thus it is completely to be expected that such membership organizations will seek to assure via accreditation that innovations are sustaining and do not alter components of the traditional business models in significant ways.
This causes a problem in responding to the overserved customers (or potential customers) of higher education, in that their desired value propositions do not necessarily align well with dominant value propositions. Thus, institutions that seek to provide their desired value propositions are very likely to be found wanting "in quality" by any accreditation system so deeply embedded in the dominant paradigm.
There is an additional constraint that occurs because accreditation is not actually focused on improving the actual delivered excellence promised in institutional value propositions. Unfortunately, higher education has very little ability (or desire?) to measure meaningful actual outcomes. As a consequence, accreditation has traditionally focused on elements of resources and procedures - number and academic profile of faculty, dollars spent per student, hours of seat time to degree, etc. Thus, accreditation is only possible for institutions that provide resources and operate with procedures that fall within the traditional understanding of what is required to produce traditionally defined excellence. For example, a StraighterLine that has few or no faculty cannot now be accredited no matter how successful it is in realizing its value proposition. An accrediting scheme that focused on outcomes rather than inputs would open up many new options.
Accreditation as it exists is very effective in encouraging sustaining innovations that improve existing value definitions. That is what it is actually set up to do by its member organizations. Potentially disruptive change has little chance of making it through the current accreditation process, however, and that is also what it was set up to ensure. I think all of Christensen's studies of how institutions react to change tell us that no accreditation system based on judgements of established stability-seeking organizations will empower the kinds of disruptive experimentation that higher education needs if it is to control, perhaps lower, costs and improve critical learning outcomes.
Obama has, of course, spoken of the need for a new accreditation scheme that utilizes a more outcomes based approach. Supporters of current accreditation will argue that it is now encouraging such radical approaches as competency based education (an idea that was squashed by the Department of Education until recently because of similar focus on inputs rather than outcomes). My feeling is that many approaches just now gaining traction among the accreditors have been around for a long time, and should have been tried out years or even decades ago. I don't think we can afford to wait that long in the future for new innovations to work through the system.
So, at the end, I agree somewhat with both groups that Blumenstyk mentioned. I think that it likely that accreditation did exactly what it was set up to do in the Altius case, but accreditation is broken because it did not allow a promising innovation to proceed because of reasons that had no demonstrable link to student outcomes. We need current accreditation to do what it does well, which is to encourage sustaining innovation and monitor traditional quality metrics. We also badly need an alternative system that encourages new higher education business models that do such things as better serve new classes of customers, radically attack the high cost structure of higher education, and increase student learning, while providing new oversight mechanisms appropriate to such models. The same organization cannot play both roles.