The Council for Higher Education Accreditation hosted a workshop Tuesday, entitled “Perspectives on Accreditation,” where experts, policymakers, and stakeholders in the industry engaged in a conversation on some of the most pressing issues facing higher education.
Panelists engaged in an overarching discussion about what higher education administrators ought to have on their radar, including the changing political landscape of college and universities after the election of President Trump, the importance of transparency in student outcome data reporting, and the challenges of recent innovations, such as MOOC certifications, for-profit and nonprofit partnerships, and how these areas relate to accreditation.
Increased transparency in higher ed
Republican congressman Paul Mitchell (MI) led the first conversation on the necessity of offering families accurate and complete data on student outcomes across all national higher education institutions.
Critics of generalized data on student performance at college, such as the Obama-era College Scorecard that the Trump administration plans to maintain, have said that such rating systems unfairly represent institutions that take in higher risk and low-income students. In fact, one of the event attendees challenged Mitchell on exactly this, questioning whether government involvement in collection of data on students would lead to excessive federal overreach and undermine the important individual characteristics of each institution. Mitchell explained that demand for more data and transparency would happen no matter what.
“The government has its hands all over it now, so some belief that we can roll that back, I don’t think that’s happening. While there may be differences in some of the nuances of institutions, as an investment for this country these are things that matter: whether students complete, can enter the career field, and can support their family,” he responded.
“Institutions may not agree … but they are still going to be participating in it. I am here to express that additional student outcome data that provides more transparency is a priority and is going to happen one way or the other. We all have a choice between making it better, or making it an arm-wrestle.”
Student protests and the changing higher ed landscape
Margaret Carlson, Political Commentator and Columnist for the Daily Beast, spoke to the altering political landscape after the Trump election. On the topic of whether administrators should expect a heavier hand from the administration and the Secretary of Education in how they do their jobs, she said that she didn’t believe so.
“There is a philosophy among Republicans that the federal government should get involved in education issues as little as possible, and so I don’t think that philosophy is going to change,” said Carlson. “Some of what will affect you are people that have been there a long time, and it will be a while before the White House gets to you. You will go on about your business without being diminished by this philosophy.”
In terms of protests, she said that students seem to be more involved. She also noted that there appears to be an upswing in sensitivity to campus speakers, and that is an issue that administrators ought to be considering. Sally Johnstone, the President of the National Center for Higher Education Management system, responded to this, saying that inflammatory speakers on campus are actually a critical safety issue administrators need to figure out how to deal with appropriately.
“It’s not about hiding information or hiding multiple points of view, it is instead about the safety of individuals on campus,” said Johnstone. “FEMA is now offering training sessions on how to handle inflammatory speakers, as well as the costs that happen around them when protests escalate. None of this is an issue about disagreeing with the speaker. It is very seriously a safety issue.”
MOOCs, innovation and other disruptors
Paul Fain and an accompanying research fellow, Alana Dunagan, from the Clayton Christensen Institute spoke about recent disruptive innovations in higher education, particularly technology adoption and online learning like MOOCs, and what that means for existing institutions.
Fain, who extensively covered Purdue's acquisition of for-profit Kaplan University, says that these types of major disruptions which reflect both the changing role of public institutions and the declining value of for-profit institutions is going to continue to happen.
"Purdue isn't the first university to do something like buying Kaplan. We see that many other institutions are looking at such deals. We have learned that many for profit chains with large student bodies may be on the chopping block."
Dunagan spoke toward the changing nature of business in higher education generally, saying that she believes that a lot of existing institutions are going to have to prepare for challenges that come with new entrants that are more technologically entrenched and focused in specific areas of expertise.
"We have found that innovation is at the core of what drives failure and what drives success." She explained that there are two types of innovation: sustained, which maintains the current framework of competition, and disruptive, which changes the trajectory of innovation. In general, she says that "disruptive innovations make products and services cheaper and more accessible, while sustaining innovations makes them more complex and more expensive."
"So when we look at frustrations in higher ed, like affordability and accessibility, I don't think that the current trajectory is going to solve those issue by itself. Technology is creating huge changes...30% of students are learning online and that's growing quickly."
She believes that in the future of higher education, as people are starting to see that they have to make continued investments in education to compete in the workforce, shorter, more modular education will start to become more appealing.
"I'm excited about new entrants, but I'm hopeful that we can teach lessons from other industries about how to adapt and embrace innovation so existing institutions can survive and thrive," she said. "The whole game is changing, and there's not a way to legislate, accredit, or regulate this fact away."
Though Fain agrees, he believes that existing elite institutions will stay in the game indefinitely. He wonders whether it's actually necessary for universities to start worrying at this time.
"I think that most elite institutions are going to be there. While Purdue, with its STEM focus has been there for long, I still wonder whether it's appropriate to frame this trend in such an urgent light?"
Dunagan concludes that it's time for public universities, to start considering the effects of disruptive innovation.
"There is some evidence that public universities in general are being left behind. It's urgent that institutions make these investments now, before it's too late for them to compete."