Innovation and Quality in Higher Education

Much is changing in higher education.

Most fundamentally, students themselves are changing. After long decades of exclusion, college access has expanded opportunities for minority students, first-generation students, and low-income students. In 2015, students are more likely to attend community college than any other postsecondary option, and more likely to be older, living away from campus, and may be attending part-time while balancing work and family.

The iconic picture of an 18-year-old high school graduate walking across a leafy campus toward her dorm room no longer reflects the reality of today’s college student.

Institutions of higher education are responding to these changes, in part by making course delivery more flexible. Technology has made this even more possible, introducing teaching and learning that is less constrained by time and place. Technology is also making new kinds of embedded assessment and adaptive curriculum possible, allowing instructors and students to discern with greater accuracy a student’s mastery of material or skills.

The demand for higher education is increasing, well beyond the capacity of traditional institutions. It’s easy to see why. As President Obama has said, the time when a high school diploma could lead to a good middle class job is gone. In today’s economy and tomorrow’s, some kind of postsecondary degree or credential is essential. That’s why we are committed to policies that increase access to high-quality programs, to keeping those programs affordable for all, and to ensuring quality outcomes for students.

Outside of the traditional colleges and universities, a vibrant marketplace for learning is emerging, whether through stand-alone MOOCS, “boot camps” that focus on training students for particular skills like computer coding, online skills courses, and institutional experimentation with competency-based programs and degrees. We applaud this wave of innovation and believe that the innovators are leading the way to a system of higher education that is more open, often less costly, more customizable to the needs of students, and more transparent in terms of its outcomes.

Many of the programs now offered outside of traditional higher education are of high quality and many earn learners access to new knowledge, new skills, and new opportunities. Some, however, are not. That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that we have few tools to differentiate the high-quality programs from the poor-quality ones. The normal mechanism we use to assess quality in higher education, accreditation, was not built to assess these kinds of providers. Moreover, even if they were, even the best programs and those serving low-income students would not, under current rules, be certified to receive federal financial aid because they are “programs” or “courses,” and not “institutions.”

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is interested in accelerating and focusing the ongoing conversations about what quality assurance might look like in the era of rapidly expanding educational options that are not traditional institutions of higher education. We are particularly interested in thinking about quality assurance through the lens of measurable student outcomes and competencies. We have no stake in supporting one or another specific set of learning outcomes. Rather, we are interested in the fact that outcomes matter and ought to be the centerpiece of any kind of quality assurance. Outcomes, in this vision of the future, are clear claims for student learning, move beyond mere statements of knowledge to what students can do with that knowledge, and are measurable.

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Over the coming weeks and months, we seek to engage broadly with the field to help deepen our understanding of how to recognize high-quality non-traditional programs. We think that a new set of quality assurance questions will need to be developed to ask hard, important questions about student learning and outcomes. These questions will help students, taxpayers, and those evaluating educational programs separate programs that are high-quality from those that do not meet the bar. Such a quality assurance process will rely much less on inputs, where the emphasis of much accreditation still rests, and will instead focus on outputs and evidence.

Based on some preliminary input we have received, we have identified several general categories in which questions should be asked:

  • Claims: What are the measurable claims that a provider is making about student learning?  Do those individual claims combine into a coherent program of study?  Are they relevant and do they have value; how do we know?
  • Assessments: How is it clear that the student has achieved the learning outcomes?  Are the assessments reliable and valid? Do the assessments measure what students can do with what they have learned?
  • Outcomes: What outcomes do program completers achieve, both in terms of academic transfer or employment and salary, where relevant?  What are other outcomes we should ask about?

These quality assurance questions are designed to focus on student learning and other critical outcomes at a much more granular level. We welcome feedback and sustained dialogue on how to foster and improve quality assurance, particularly in this moment of tremendous innovation and change. We seek to convene, participate in, and hear the results of many conversations with diverse stakeholders.  To join those conversations, please fill out the form below, or send us your thoughts, questions, and ideas for engagement at

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Ted Mitchell is U.S. Under Secretary of Education