How to Address Innovation in Higher Ed Accreditation

by Susan D. Phillips and Kevin Kinser, Ph.D.

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Finally, a consistent critique regarding accreditation is that it is resistant to innovation. Is this true? On the one hand, yes, and intentionally so. As the guardians of quality, the accreditation process is designed to be risk-averse and skeptical of the new. It is inherently a conservative institution, making judgments about quality based on what has worked in the past, and demanding evidence before accepting claims of success. This might seem like the hidebound response of a Luddite, but it is actually a key way that accreditation maintains confidence in the system and provides a fiscally responsible pathway to the largess of Title IV aid.

On the other hand, though, the reverse is equally true: the process of accreditation inherently promotes innovation by always looking for improvements in quality and – especially in recent years – asking institutions to measure results not just activities. In practice, this means that accreditation explicitly asks institutions to identify where they are not meeting their goals, and what they plan to do to change. Accreditors will also review any institution that meets their eligibility requirements, regardless of the different ways in which mission, curriculum, delivery methods, and governance might be configured. And the eligibility requirements and quality standards themselves are under regular review, ensuring that eligibility and quality review are grounded in evidence and not a cudgel against creativity.

These fundamental notions of simultaneous conservative tendencies and improvement culture are part and parcel of the tension in accreditation. It is like the carrot of encouraging improvement is punished by the stick of “but not too fast!”

But we need to question notions of “innovation,” “change,” and “improve” in this context. Clearly many recent innovations — especially in technology and online learning — have been widely accepted within the accreditation process. And, openness to change is exactly what quality improvement is about: identifying what can be better and figuring out how to do better.

For institutions or other providers who seek to change, to innovate, to do things differently (whether currently accredited or seeking to become so), they might well find themselves in the odd situation of being both successful in identifying places for improvement…and guilty of doing things too differently.

For accreditors who have a valued tradition of helping institutions improve — through doing things differently — there might be much pride in their success in facilitating change in one area. . . while at the same time find themselves guilty of creating a barrier to change in another.

Listening carefully across the spectrum of perspectives, one can hear among accreditors and institutions alike calls for tolerance, flexibility, consistency, and getting out of the way. Sometimes the calls are directed at accreditors, and sometimes at the federal government. For example, nuance is needed to draw the line between “bad actors” and “innovative actors.” And certainly, the innovators might well bristle when they are placed in the former category, rather than the latter, simply because they see a new way to act that has not yet been endorsed. But clearly, accreditors should not be in the business of enforcing the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent where “nothing should ever be done for the first time.”

And, one last point on innovation: it is important to note that although innovation tends to be cast in a favorable light, not all innovations are good. Some changes fail to make an improvement over existing practice or even end up making things worse. The “new” is not always better, and accreditation agencies must take responsibility for knowing the difference between a transformative breakthrough and an outrageous scam. It is for this reason that accreditation is, by design, resistant to novelty. The collective endorsement of accreditation standards and outcomes by the stakeholders is the result of a process whereby new ideas are weighed against the old. The rewards of quickly adopting an innovative practice are often not as great as the risks to students and the financial aid system they rely on if the new idea turns out to be harmful. Move too quickly, and students can be harmed and public dollars wasted. Move too slow, and the system can’t keep up.

If quicker responsiveness is desired, then a greater comfort with risk would be needed — and not just by the accreditation agencies. The federal government and the general public must also recognize the trade-offs here. To take the recent difficulties of for-profit higher education, for example, much has been made of the notion that accreditation agencies were asleep at the wheel when students were dropping out or graduating with debt they could not repay. However, accreditor acceptance of the innovation of for-profit higher education occurred partly in response to pressure from the federal government not to be biased against the new form. The recent inability to hold some for-profit institutions accountable illustrates the dangers of quality assurance embracing innovation before fully understanding the complete parameters of the change.

So… finding the right place for innovation in higher education is essential and must also consider a process that recognizes that “new” is not always “better.” Even though innovation is a logical outcome of an improvement mission, a greater speed of change will inevitably call for tolerance for a greater risk of failure.

With this in mind, might it be worth considering whether the road for innovation in higher education needs to follow a different quality assurance path? Options such as developing an accreditation agency that is specifically designed to accommodate innovative and outside-the-box ideas may have merit as a way to place institutions that are trying out new, experimental activities into their own category with a different level of oversight connected to the risk they pose. Extending this flexibility to existing accreditors and other education innovators — to create a sandbox in which new models and methods of both education and accreditation might be built, tried out, and tested — might be a promising direction to advance both quality assurance and quality improvement in higher education.

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