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  • Alana Dunagan

New research: This is how successful innovation is done

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

As higher education institutions face new demands from society, students, and the government, the ground is shifting beneath them. It’s abundantly clear that tweaking the status quo won’t solve the affordability issues that students face. Slight improvements to current models won’t rectify brutal disparities in access and outcomes in higher education. Many institutions are aware of this—particularly smaller, rural schools, which are struggling with declining enrollments and ensuing financial tailspins.

Innovative models are necessary to address higher education’s internal and external challenges, and in a recent paper, College Transformed, I highlight five institutions that are pioneering new paths forward. Despite the obstacles leaders face, such as accreditation, and the unknown response of accreditors to potential organizational change, there are strategies that can help propel innovative models forward.

Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), agrees that innovation is necessary. “We live in challenging times, especially for education, and there is an understanding that just doing the same thing as it’s been done in the past won’t address the challenges or take advantage of opportunities,” she says. NEASC accredits three of the five innovative institutions highlighted in “College Transformed,” including Simmons College, Northeastern University, and Southern New Hampshire University.

Accreditors are deliberately trying to demonstrate their openness to innovation—NEASC issued new standards that went into effect July 1st. One notable update was made to the preamble, which now introduces the standards as explicitly, “welcom[ing] perceptive and imaginative innovation aimed at increasing the effectiveness of higher education.”

Brittingham notes a culture of innovation in the region, and believes that those who serve on the Commission see institutional diversity as an asset: “That diversity happens because of innovation, and it creates a mindset that something new and different can be a really good thing.”

Each of the six regional accreditors operates slightly differently, but for NEASC, communication is critical. Brittingham sees relationships as fundamental to the process. “In New England we are blessed by the small geography of the region; it means that schools who are thinking of doing something different can come talk to the staff about it, and the staff can give advice and perspective on how the Commission will think about what they are proposing.” While this may pose challenges in larger regions, partnering early with accreditors can improve the chances of successful outcomes. This was the case for Southern New Hampshire University, which deployed a competency-based program called College for America, which NEASC ultimately approved. Competency-based programs were new for NEASC, and the Commission scheduled an additional afternoon discussion session to work through it. Brittingham urges leaders to prioritize dialogue: “Pick up the phone and talk to one of us or come in and meet with us.”

But Brittingham notes that good ideas aren’t enough. Institutions need to make sure their proposals are credible. “We also look for the capacity to undertake the innovation. So speaking with the SNHU example, they had considerable grant money and had hired people who came with really strong backgrounds. It wasn’t just an idea that two or three people had that was interesting, they also had the people and the capacity to really do it well,” she says.

And building autonomous units needs to be done thoughtfully. Accreditors may shy away from proposals that don’t have sufficient continuity between the main campus and the new model. “When it comes to the standards, if a college came along and decided to set up something totally separate–separate academic officer, totally separate systems–where the only person in common was the president, that would be too separate. We need to see some continuity. The Commission has to be persuaded that it’s one institution, not two—but there’s not a formula to that,” says Brittingham.

The barriers to change are both internal and external—and they are real. But institutional leaders are faced with challenges status quo models cannot address. Innovation is necessary, and while it is challenging, it holds the tantalizing promise of enabling financial sustainability for institutions, as well as affordable and equitable access to higher education for the next generation of students.

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