How to Stop Innovation in Higher Ed

It may seem clear that the higher education establishment can’t avoid change for long. It’s not only the technological challenge from online education, and perhaps existentially from “massive open online courses” MOOCs. It’s also because of the mounting pressure to rein in tuition and thus operating costs because Americans these days are demanding measurable value for money.

Yet is dramatic change inevitable? Maybe. But innovation can be slowed, or even thwarted, for a number of reasons. And unfortunately there are some man-made threats on the horizon.

Innovations can take root only if they work, of course. And some agents of change are still trying to figure out exactly what business model works and how to guarantee a quality product. That’s true of MOOCs. Still, after barely a year of existence, leaders in that field are making remarkable progress in developing ways to review and grade work in huge classes, as well as assuring honesty in examinations and assignments. We are also beginning to see some interesting partnerships between online innovators and established colleges that make the business economics more feasible.

What’s likely to trip up innovators is not technical but regulatory barriers. The most obvious from the outset has been accreditation. As Lindsey Burke and I have explained, accreditation is a gate that either lets in the new idea or is slammed in the innovator’s face. And accreditation is primarily in the hands of existing suppliers of education together with change-resistant and heavily lobbied government. The good news is that innovators are finding ways to outflank this formidable obstacle. One way is to partner directly with an accredited institution. Another is for a new venture to develop its own credentialed courses which can meet the market test of acceptance where it really matters – employers. That second route is being explored by such upstarts as Coursera, edX and Udacity.

However a more serious threat ultimately may be less obvious than accreditation. It’s the danger of increasing federal and state red tape. This can suffocate a new business or entire industry. No doubt with the encouragement of established institutions, for instance, online ventures are encountering a rising tide of new regulations. Back in 2011, for instance, the federal Department of Education issued a letter explaining that recent federal regulations meant that online learning services not only had to meet the requriements of the state in which the company is located, but also the rules of each state in which a student resides. According to University Ventures, a “venture capitalist” firm for new forms of higher education, that ruling threatens enormous mischief by states trying to protect their higher education institutions from unwelcome competition. For instance, Maryland is seeking to require online colleges to meet a range of curriculum and facilities requirements. Nevada wants to regulate the qualifications of instructors.

This creeping state regulation poses a considerable threat to education reform driven by online services. At the very least, it could lead to new institutions declining to enroll certain students looking for better value for money because they happen to live in a protectionist state. At worst it could permanently stunt the growth of new ventures that may offer the best chance for millions of future Americans to obtain affordable quality higher education and a chance at the American Dream.

Posted by: Stuart Butler

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