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Let’s Stimulate, Not Stifle, Innovation in Higher Education | Commentary

As House and Senate committees hold hearings and the Education Department rewrites its regulations for private colleges, public policymakers must consider the unprecedented changes and challenges in higher education.

Yes, the traditional model of full-time, on-campus education for 18-to-22-year-old students has served our nation well. But four transformative trends are stimulating and demanding change — and public policies should encourage, not stifle, innovation.

First, there is a growing demand for educational programs from Americans of all ages, especially those who do not have the time or money to be full-time students at traditional colleges and need a different model.

Second, there are rapidly evolving structures and delivery systems for higher education, largely driven by innovations in technology and communication. Online courses allow institutions to operate on a national, even global, scale. Traditional colleges and universities are expanding their online offerings and new kinds of online institutions are emerging, with proprietary colleges taking their place alongside traditional four-year colleges and community colleges.

Third, reductions in public funding and the rising costs of attending traditional institutions require cost-effective solutions in every sector. Economic pressures are squeezing the higher education triad: the students and their families, the colleges and universities, and the federal and state governments that finance public institutions and assist students at institutions of all kinds.

And, fourth, there is the growing demand for increased accountability. Instead of concentrating exclusively on students’ access to higher education, policymakers and the public are increasingly emphasizing students’ success in college and afterward.

Our nation needs a variety of different educational systems operating in a truly competitive marketplace that allows students to choose from a variety of models. And we need public policy that supports, not thwarts, innovation and the development of those new models, especially those that serve the great majority of Americans without the time or money for traditional colleges and universities.

In this highly competitive environment that encourages change and cost-control, proprietary institutions are expanding rapidly, especially online. Why? Because these institutions meet the needs of growing numbers of non-traditional students and are evolving quickly to address important issues raised by members of Congress and accrediting agencies.

Case in point: When Iowa-based Ashford University had its request for initial accreditation denied by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), we moved quickly to address the accreditor’s concerns, which mirrored some issues raised by Congress. Because of the changes we made, Ashford received its accreditation from WASC.

Ashford’s improvements focused on student success and quality education, including a reshaped governance system with a strong, independent board of trustees that I was recruited to lead. After a fulfilling career in traditional higher education, including more than a decade as president of Iowa State University, I took on this challenge because I want to help shape the future of higher education, instead of just watching it from the sidelines.

Now I am part of an institution that is re-engineering the modern student experience. Some 75,000 of our students attend our online university, while about 1,000 study at our campus in Clinton, Iowa. Seventy-three percent are working adults, 62 percent are 30 or older, 48 percent are people of color, and 20 percent are active-duty military or veterans. For these students whom traditional institutions often underserve, we offer flexible schedules for classes and semesters, with new semesters starting every Monday.

Unlike more traditional institutions, Ashford measures outcomes, quickly responds to results and rapidly embraces change. Oriented to serving our “customers,” we conduct quarterly student satisfaction surveys and modify our programs and procedures to do more of what demonstrably supports student retention and success. And we counsel students who have been with us for three weeks but who are already underperforming to leave, at no cost, with no debt, but with the opportunity to go out, build their skill set and reapply later.

Policymakers should not single out an emerging sector with regulations more strict than those for established institutions. Accountability should be for all institutions, in every sector, comparing their success rates for comparable students and considering “risk profiles” for factors such as college readiness.

Competition and change are good for every sector of American life, including education. Public policies should push progress forward, not hold it back.

Gregory L. Geoffroy is chairman of the board of trustees of Ashford University. He was president of Iowa State University from 2001 to 2012 and previously served as senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Maryland.

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