“You really want just the accounting degree and you also get the football team alongside it,” Horn said. “You’re paying for things that you will never ever use. It’s not tailored to actual needs.”
The task force is creating a nonprofit to develop modern standards for ensuring the quality of a higher education at a decent price. Horn says the existing accreditation system is broken and hampers innovative programs that could address the affordability issue. He says a fresh take on certification will open the door for the Airbnbs and Ubers of higher education.
While TV junkies have seen cheap alternatives to cable bundles, such as Netflix, spring up, students have not seen many options in the higher education space, which remains largely untouched by disruption. And students are paying for it. Costs continue to rise. Student debt has doubled since 2008, reaching $1.3 trillion.
“No one is addressing the real issue, which is, why does [college] cost $30,000 a year and increase by double digits every year?” said Western Governors University President Bob Mendenhall, who is a member of the group. “How do we get more efficient and effective in education?”
One place to start is how colleges and universities are accredited. Mendenhall thinks a shift from traditional methods of certifying these institutions is essential to the future of higher education.
“Neither accreditation nor regulation has caught up with the power of technology to impact both the quality and cost and accessibility of higher education,” Mendenhall said.
Accreditors evaluate schools on factors such as their mission, finances, staff, quality of classes, student-teacher interactions and enforcement of a code of conduct. The process can take several years. It’s a way for schools to justify their worth and also find areas for improvement.
Horn’s group wants to shift the focus to actual outcomes. Did the student master the course work? Did they find a job, or receive a salary boost? Are they satisfied with the program?
Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, says an outcome-based focus is a step toward affordability.
“We need innovations in the educational providers structure but also what they award,” Miller added. “This means thinking about other ways of assessing and certifying learning besides just a bachelor’s or other degree.”
A promising example has emerged in the form of computer science “bootcamps,” a rapidly growing college alternative that puts students through compressed programs to prepare them for coding jobs. According to Course Report, a website tracking tech bootcamps, the number of graduates from those programs more than doubled in 2015 from the previous year to roughly 16,000. Average tuition in 2014 and 2015 was about $11,000, a fraction of the cost of a computer science degree at a traditional four-year college.
Those involved in Horn’s task force, including leading bootcamps such as Hack Reactor in San Francisco, will participate in the development of the standards.
At Hack Reactor, 99 percent of 2014 graduates found jobs within three months. The median salary offer was $105,000. Students paid $17,780 for the three-month program. According to the New York Federal Reserve, 4.6 percent of recent college computer engineering graduates were unemployed in 2013 and 2014. Those with jobs had a median early career wage of $60,000 and a median mid-career wage of $100,000.
Mendenhall points to projections that most future jobs will require a college-level degree, yet the bulk of the U.S. population isn’t getting that education. This divide can’t be bridged without addressing the skyrocketing costs of higher education.
Ruan Pethiyagoda, chief strategy officer at Hack Reactor’s parent company, Reactor Core, said it only considered traditional accreditation for the allure of a .edu domain name, before deciding even that wasn’t worth it.
“It seemed like a lot of overhead and no real benefit for the students,” Pethiyagoda said. Reactor Core — founded in 2012 — now has seven campuses in four states and graduates 1,500 engineers a year.
Accreditation would also provide the chance to qualify his students for federal loans. But he’s wary of venturing down that path, citing the burdensome loans that are common of students at for-profit colleges.
Horn thinks his group’s stamp of approval can give students and society more faith in bootcamps and other innovative programs, spurring their growth and driving down the cost of education. If a parent sees outside auditors examining and vouching for the quality of a new program, they may feel more comfortable in pushing their child toward such a nontraditional experience.
While the group’s focus now is coding bootcamps, Horn envisions broadening to all sorts of programs.
Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, says it’s simplistic to think all of higher education can be reinvented, and says competency-based systems are suited for when students are mastering techniques, not broad concepts. He says that evaluating outcomes works when there’s a broad recognition of what should be taught.
While some elements of nursing, or especially a computer programming course, would fit, he’s wary of broadening the method.
“At the end of the day you can either do it or you can’t. It’s very easy to measure,” Nassirian said. Dealing with a history major would be more challenging. Rather than memorizing dates — which can be tested against — he stressed the more important value of learning habits of mind and honing writing ability.
And Horn’s group is not the only one that would like to innovate in the higher education space. Some existing groups that accredit colleges and universities, such as the Higher Learning Commission, say they’re also interested in new measures for evaluating higher education, but they are hampered by federal law. A big hang-up is credit hours. Federal financial aid is built on the hours a student spends in a course, despite the varying speeds at which pupils learn. For example, a student might master a given course in a month, but have to continue attending classes for two more months. For another student, three months might not be enough to master the given materials.
“It’s time we move forward and realize learning can take place in a variety of ways,” said Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, which is not involved in the task force. “I don’t think there’s ill-intent, but at the federal level we’re over-regulated.”
Horn’s group will file a report by the summer and plans to have the nonprofit running shortly thereafter. It’s raising money from philanthropies for funding.