Administration

Accreditation Reformers Propose a Model of Their Own

November 12, 2015

Amid all the talk about fixing accreditation, a new education consultancy based in Silicon Valley is proposing a new model for assessing educational quality.

The model, from Entangled Solutions, calls for evaluating traditional institutions and other education providers based on students’ opinions of the programs once they’ve left, and on "valid, reliable, and appropriate" tests of student learning. It would also require the providers to measure specific outcomes, such as how attending a program changed students’ earnings and job prospects.

An expert on accreditation who reviewed the Entangled Solutions proposal on Wednesday said many of its ideas were not as groundbreaking as its proponents may think.

Another expert, the head of an accrediting agency, called it "a timely and potentially quite a helpful addition to how quality of postsecondary education is judged," while also noting that the kind of measures and monitoring the proposal calls for could be costly for the institutions involved.

The proposal comes from two principals at Entangled: Paul Freedman, whose Ivy Bridge College joint venture with Tiffin University was shut down by a traditional accreditor in 2013, and Michael B. Horn, an author and promoter of "disruptive innovation" who has been publicly advocating for a new model of quality assurance for higher education for the past five years.

'We're really trying to measure outcomes for the claims the program is making and the students say they are attending for.'
The model, which Entangled described in a paper it published on Wednesday, is designed for coding academies and other educational providers seeking to be part of a U.S. Department of Education experiment that will allow federal student aid to flow to ventures that operate in partnership with accredited colleges.

That experiment requires participants to use new quality-assurance entities to assess claims about students’ outcomes, including learning and employment, and Mr. Freedman said that least five of the expected applicants plan to use Entangled Solutions’ model.

But Mr. Horn said the framework could also be the kind of alternative to accreditation for traditional colleges that some reformers, including U.S. senators like Michael F. Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, and Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, are now calling for.

"We’re really trying to measure outcomes for the claims the program is making and the students say they are attending for," said Mr. Horn, who used a similar approach with the "quality-value index" he has been promoting since 2010.

Entangled Solutions proposes measuring the "earnings boost" students receive from attending a program, as well as job-placement rates 90 and 180 days after students leave the program.

While such measurements may be more appropriate for coding boot camps and other programs specifically aimed at careers, Mr. Horn said he was confident the framework could be adapted to include gauges of "a whole host of social and emotional gains" of the sort that traditional colleges might see as part of their mission for educating students.

To assure consistency in those measures, the company also proposes creating an independent nonprofit organization to define common standards, such as how earnings gains are calculated. The organization would be modeled after the boards in the accounting industry that, for example, set rules for auditors on what counts as revenue.

Entangled has also proposed that the Education Department use its evaluation method, among others, to create a sliding scale for authorizing access to federal student aid, instead of the current all-or-nothing system in which institutions have unlimited access to the aid as long as they’re accredited. For example, those in the highest quartile on various measures could get access to more aid, while those that fare poorly might get only limited access.

Costs and Expectations

Despite the proposal’s emphasis on outcomes, Paul L. Gaston, a scholar of accreditation, said he found little "of what I would describe as genuinely innovative thinking" in it.

"All of the accreditors are more outcomes-focused than they were a decade ago," noted Mr. Gaston, who wrote the 2014 book Higher Education Accreditation: How It’s Changing, Why It Must. When you look at the standards of most of the regional accreditors, added Mr. Gaston, a professor of English at Kent State University, "the expectations have some real teeth."

Barbara E. Brittingham, president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, was the accrediting official who highlighted the potential costs of the Entangled Solutions model. But she also noted the "considerable talent" behind the proposal. "A lot of people will want to follow what Michael Horn is doing in this space," she said in an email.

Entangled Solutions recognizes its approach will involve more costs for institutions, above the fees they would pay for the company’s services to audit the measures. But Mr. Horn said he didn’t expect that would be a deterrent. "Programs that take outcomes seriously should be glad to invest in that," he said.

Mr. Freedman’s former company Altius Education is now suing an accreditor over the Ivy Bridge closure. While acknowledging the irony of his involvement in creating a new quality-assurance agency, Mr. Freedman said he has sincere reasons for pursuing it. Accreditation as it now stands, he contended, is too often the "tail that wags the dog" for people pursuing innovation in higher education.

"It’s easy to criticize accreditors, and everybody seems to be doing it," said Mr. Freeman. "It’s much more difficult to provide a viable alternative."

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.