Design Issues in The New Universe: Quality Assurance: Cost v. Quality: Part IV

There is, quite possibly, no more contentious issue, nor one less settled, than quality assurance in the new universe of learning. And, as institutions develop their programs in the new universe, keeping an eye on external quality assurance is a critical factor in the price v. quality equation.

I see four sources of responsibility for quality assurance currently vying for quality assurance space in the new universe: government, regional accrediting associations, and employer-referenced programs operating beyond government and regional accreditation oversight. A fourth impending player that will increase, I believe, in the new universe is what I call “free range” learning.

With billions of state and federal dollars on the table to support tuition and fees, government, some would say, has a direct interest in how well schools perform. Others would argue, equally vehemently, that just as church and state are separated in America so also should the state and education be separated. In fact, the independence of the institution and its faculty to set and enforce standards is a hallmark of our approach. That said, the regional accreditation associations are struggling mightily to update their procedures and processes to validate the efficacy of a learning-centric approach to quality assurance. And that appears to be the preferred model for most institutions today.

We are also seeing the advent of boot camps, expanded corporate education offerings, and other free-standing and independent learning resources. There is an argument being made that, if the results of such a program are satisfactory to employers, and in the case of Straighterline to colleges and universities, why do they have to affiliate formally with higher education at all? Indeed, significant efforts are underway to link learning outcomes and work readiness outcomes so that learning can be validated for either or both. (Credential Engine and CSW). And the Department of Education’s EQUIP demonstration program is aimed directly at bringing some of these independent efforts under the higher education accreditation umbrella for quality assurance and the promise of financial aid.

And with the growth of “free range learning” in the new universe, whether individualized completely or organized by third parties such as MOOC providers and The Great Courses, it can be argued that there will be an increased amount of “free range” learning in which customer satisfaction is the determinant of quality.

Regulatory and quality assurance oversight are significant and growing cost centers for institutions. Hence, processes that are transparent, effective, and efficient are of paramount importance. And, while I cannot predict what the balance of power will look like in ten years, I will suggest the following core assumptions that will underlie whatever evolves.

  1. Neither the federal government nor the regional associations will evaporate and disappear into thin air. They will both be players in the game.
  2. Future quality assurance standards will rely as much on data and analysis as past standards have relied on professional judgement.
  3. Importantly, two of the three sectors inhabiting the new universe – independent and free range – are outside of traditional government oversight. Their presence will put increasing pressure on institutions to network with them and evaluate their learning outcomes for recognition. Failure to network on the part of institutions will formalize the gap between much career and personal learning and academic participation. Not a great growth scenario for post-secondary education writ large.
  4. Quality assurance standards must be tied to the student target population of the institution being evaluated. I suggest an “apples to apples” comparison based on the risk factors of the student body; not a comparison by institutional type. By this measure, institutions whose students average between “0” and “1” risk factors would be compared to each other and be held to higher expectations than those whose students averaged “2” to “3” risk factors in terms of retention and persistence to the certificate or degree.
  5. Evaluations of learning at the course, program, and degree levels have to be evidence-based and tied to clear outcomes.

By incorporating these concepts, future quality assurance, whatever its name, will be tied to the institution’s relative success with the students it serves. Along with the recommendations of the last three blogs, this approach will allow for a clear alignment between cost, price, and quality at the institutional level.

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