Two months ago I wrote a post about Governor Brown's directive for a fully-online community college in California, noting that:
What this points to is that for a new fully-online institution to get to some meaningful level of enrollment (let’s say 20,000) in the same ballpark as these comparison schools, I estimate it would take a full decade at the least. This is the reason, by the way, that Mitch Daniels and Purdue University made the Kaplan University deal even though Kaplan’s enrollments are dropping. Daniels did not want to wait a decade to get to meaningful enrollment numbers for an online college serving working adults – if everything works out, within a year Purdue will have a fully-online institution serving 30,000+ working adults. That is a big if, by the way.
This estimate is probably optimistic, however, based on the outlook for eVersity, the fully-online institution being created in the state of Arkansas. The eVersity leaders have decided that they cannot wait for regional accreditation as reported at Inside Higher Ed today [emphasis added].
When the University of Arkansas System envisioned creating the online-only institution eVersity in 2014, it planned to follow the well-worn path trodden by other public higher education systems in launching fully online institutions: building on the accreditation of the system’s other universities before seeking independent approval from the regional accreditor.
But come January, eVersity will seek approval from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission -- a national body that overwhelmingly accredits for-profit and nonprofit online institutions -- rather than the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits all other public institutions in Arkansas and many nonprofit colleges in 18 other states.
One of the primary factors shaping eVersity’s decision is speed. The regional accreditor told the university that it could take roughly six years for HLC to award its stamp of approval, while DEAC -- assuming it affirms eVersity in January -- will have acted in just under two years. Institutional accreditation is required for eVersity students to gain access to federal financial aid, and to ensure that their credentials are valued by employers and others.
The challenge with national accreditation includes severe limitations on students being able to transfer credits out of the school.
On the issue of speed, [senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress] Flores noted that institutions waiting for regional accreditation can often apply for federal aid during the candidacy stage of their application, and that students who attend regionally accredited institutions will have a much easier time transferring their credits than those who attend nationally accredited ones. Flores said eVersity seemed like “a little bit of an odd fit” for DEAC, which typically accredits smaller for-profit institutions that don’t offer federal aid.
The IHE article (very well-written, by the way) described the path chosen by previous fully-online institutions.
A more conventional route to regional accreditation, however, is to start as a division of an already regionally accredited campus, said Goldstein. This is what the University of Maryland University College did before obtaining independent regional accreditation. Colorado State University Global Campus also went this route.
[Chief academic and operating officer of eVersity] Moore said that eVersity decided not to do that, as it did not want to be under the academic and administrative control of another University of Arkansas System institution. “We wanted the ability to be nimble and responsive and not burdened by legacy systems, practices and policies. There are certainly advantages to built-in infrastructures, but they also come with a cost,” said Moore.
Think about the implications - if a state wants a new, fully-online institution to serve working adults, there seems to be four choices before there is meaningful impact in numbers of students enrolled in institution:
- Establish new, separate institution, choose regional accreditation, be patient in realistic enrollment growth, and expect 10 - 15 years for meaningful impact
- Do the above but choose national accreditation and limit transfer ability and possibly impact enrollment, and expect 6 - 11 years
- Establish division of another school using their accreditation, then spin off for separate institution later on, and risk getting caught up in traditional institution's legacy policies and practices (unknown timescale)
- Pull a Mitch Daniels and buy an existing online (or mostly online) institution through creative process, risk not being approved due to transfer of control, and risk getting caught up in the online institution's legacy policies and practices - and expect 2 - 3 years if the bet works out
California likely faces similar choices with the fully-online college directive being evaluated this fall. This is a legacy-building project, but there will be real pressure to not have to wait 10 - 15 years to start getting meaningful impact. eVersity from Arkansas is going through this same process ahead of time, and the California team should learn lessons by watching what works and doesn't work in this case.
More broadly, the IHE article ends with a key point about accreditation needing to change.
Russell Poulin, director of policy and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, said that accreditors needed to figure out how to accredit new providers more quickly, without compromising on quality. “Accreditation is slow and innovation is fast; we are starting to see political and business pressure to find alternatives,” he said.
Read the entire IHE article. This subject is important.