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Exploring Accreditation for Alternative Education Providers

Demand is growing for the accreditation of new forms of learning occurring outside traditional postsecondary settings.

Competency-based learning, prior learning assessments, digital badges and Massive Open Online Courses are some of the evolving learning methods impacting the traditional higher education space. However, they are not capable of receiving accreditation the way that institutions are able to.

“There is growing interest in what I’m calling non-institutional education,” Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, told Inside Higher Ed.

In some cases, students have the option to earn credits for college-level learning obtained through non-institutional education providers by an issuing college or university. However, the decision to award credit is left up to the individual institution, as non-institutional courses are only recommended for credit by higher education associations such as the American Council on Education (ACE).

One example of a non-institutional education provider is StraighterLine, which offers low-cost college-level courses. Some of StraighterLine’s courses have received credit recommendations from ACE, making it a little easier for the provider’s students to earn college credit from institutions willing to grant it.

According to Inside Higher Ed, some industry experts are advocating for more accreditation representing these education providers. Burck Smith, CEO and founder of StraighterLine, recently spoke to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Higher Education urging legislators to allow accreditation to occur at course-level since existing accreditation systems are based on degree programs.

The biggest roadblock standing in the way of the accreditation of non-institutional courses is figuring out how to approach it. While a number of higher education associations could potentially take on accrediting non-college learning at the course level, some speculate that an entirely new association would be better suited to take on that role.

However, in order to do this, the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning President and CEO Pamela Tate states that the accreditation process for these learning methods would need to be vastly different from the existing system. She told Inside Higher Ed that if accreditation for these courses were to happen in a traditional manner, it would be destined to fail.

“It seems like this sort of gargantuan idea that would just die of its own weight.”