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From Accreditation Monopolies to Accreditation Markets

Innovation in higher education might be promoted by breaking down regional accreditation monopolies.

Photo of Dan Ryan
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Accreditation has long been a part of US higher education and with explosion of for-profit, online startups, and more in the higher education space the need for regulation and certification is probably more important than ever.  

The status quo for colleges and universities is a set of regional accreditation agencies.* Institutions are generally accredited by the entity in whose geographic region they are located.  This monopoly situation gives the agencies outsized power to dictate the direction of change in higher education and creates almost no incentive for the agencies to improve their services either to the public, the institutions they regulate, or the government.  Sociologists of organizations and institutions would predict what we see: convergence toward a stable set of standard operating procedures that don't change much in response to the environment.

* There are in fact hundreds of accreditation organizations out there, many for specialized subject areas. The regional agencies are recognized by the federal government and each specifies which states it covers.

This is not a unique situation; regulatory monopolies are common.  One response is to be anti-regulation; a better response is to be pro-smart-regulation.

The recent demise of a few big for-profit entities and the high publicity lawsuit against Trump University remind us that regulation against fraud is important in higher education. But regulation has another important function: the value of an educational credential depends on the faith employers and other institutions of education have in it.  Indeed, with the explosion of low cost instructional resources, broadly recognized certifications may lie at the heart of the future of higher education.

We can imagine the emergence of both disruptive skill/knowledge certifying enterprises that operate at the individual level and certification accrediting enterprises that operate at the program level.  To generate a healthy ecosystem of such "regulators" we will need to think not in terms of government regulation of educational institutions but rather of some collective regulation of regulators.  

But a minimal first step in the US would be to allow colleges and universities to be accredited by any of the regional accreditation agencies.  Since the agencies live or die by the number of entities they regulate and by the stock placed in their accreditation by government and the public, this would yield a strong incentive for these agencies to compete on quality, service, and the attraction of the best institutions to their fold.

Going forward, institutions and entrepreneurs should be thinking about how to get into the certification business.  Colleges and universities around the world are laboring under ill-considered regimes of locally defined learning outcomes and rubrics to document learning.   Much of this is done in the spirit of "do it yourself or they will be doing it to you," but it is creating an opportunity for entities that would efficiently and rigorously and fairly certify that students have gained this or that proficiency as input to the next level of education or employment.

These things exist in a fragmentary and sometimes global fashion (think bar exams, GREs, etc.); the next step might be a blossoming of competing certification/accreditation entities that will 

  • free institutions to be more innovative in how they deliver learning
  • provide clearer signals to potential students about what institutions are most effective
  • provide clearer signals to employers, etc. about what people know
  • push one another to create ever more efficient and effective ways to assess teaching and learning and the organization of education
  • free individuals to acquire skill through multiple channels but still obtain recognizable credentials.

Partly inspired by Gillian K. Hadfield's new book Rules for a Flat World.

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Tell us about your work experience:

Math, chemistry, physics, computer science then, sociology and innovation now.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

An overlooked piece of the future of higher education is the re-arrangement of how we certify/accredit/regulate institutions and individual learners. There is a disruptive opportunity in the idea of a market for certification/accreditation.


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Photo of Max Noble

I'm so for this.  Because the future needs  a huge diversity of knowledge, much of which isn't even recognized by current institutions and they are unable to keep pace with the development. Do you think we can do "accreditation" through peer and organization feedback? Just the way customer or user feedback works online now?

Photo of Dan Ryan

Interesting idea, Max Noble .  My first guess is that that institutions are at a level of complexity compared to products and persons that would require us to really craft something unlike what we have thus far seen in this area. Now that would be an interesting design challenge.

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