By Michael B. Horn and Alana Dunagan
This paper was first published as a chapter in Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Higher education is in a time of transition. Colleges and universities are seeking—and sometimes struggling—to keep pace. The challenges come from a number of directions: the changing population of students, evolving demands of the workplace and society into which students will enter, new frontiers in pedagogy powered by new technologies and research on learning, existing business models that are at risk from a combination of stagnant or declining revenue and escalating costs, and competition from new forms of postsecondary education that often look nothing like a traditional college or university.
As a result, many colleges and universities are seeking to pursue new strategies that, in some cases, challenge the long-held tenets of the traditional college model. But innovation in higher education can be complicated—and not just because colleges and universities are complex places with many moving parts, constituencies, and purposes.
In most other sectors, when organizations see a new opportunity, they develop a plan to tackle it. They generally do not need the permission of an external party to chase the opportunity. Higher education is different. Depending on the nature of the innovation, a college or university must work closely with its accreditor to ensure that the new practice is consistent with the accreditor’s quality standards. As a result, accreditation plays a major role in the innovation process for most colleges and universities.
Accreditors can block innovation, but they can also facilitate it. Institutions, however, do not always know what their accreditor will allow them to do when they seek to innovate—or what resources they may have to expend to convince an accreditor that an innovation should be permissible. The seeming randomness casts a pall over innovation across the sector. It also stands in stark contrast to the ability of unaccredited educational institutions to innovate.