How do students judge the quality of distance education courses?  The Distance Education Accrediting Commission’s (DEAC) new quality review process helps students to make that evaluation.

Traditional colleges have accreditation. Accrediting agencies traditionally provide peer-review evaluations to (according to the U.S. Department of Education) “ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” However, there are a growing number of entities offering distance education courses that are not “institutions of higher education.”

Last Friday, DEAC announced its new Approved Quality Curriculum (AQC). This new service uses a standard rubric to peer-review non-institutional “providers” of distance education. StraighterLine and Sophia are the first “providers” to be recognized as achieving AQC status for their online courses.Logo for DEAC's Approved Quality Curriculum.

This is a major step in erasing one of the major delineators between traditional credit-bearing institutions and their non-credit counterparts.

What it is the Approved Quality Curriculum?

The Distance Education Accrediting Commission (formerly the Distance Education and Training Council) is a federally-recognized accrediting agency. Even though they are approved by the Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the “national” accrediting agencies are viewed by some as a distant relative to the regional accrediting agencies. Despite that perception, DEAC’s rigorous review methods are the equal of its regional cousins.

“In AQC, we are applying the hallmarks of our accreditation process and expertise in distance education in a constructive and meaningful way for all offerings of online learning, whether institutionally based or not,” said Leah Matthews, DEAC’s Executive Director. “When DEAC conducts an accreditation process, it reviews education quality all the way to the course level.  We are implementing the aspects of our course review process, and we call it AQC reviewed curriculum. Earning an AQC status means that StraighterLine and Sophia have met the same quality expectations for their courses that DEAC implements when it reviews courses as part of an accreditation review.”

Photo of Leah Matthews
Leah Matthews, Executive Director, Distance Education Accrediting Commission

Matthews credits the leadership of her board in seeking innovative quality assurance processes. Creating the AQC rubric took nearly a year of long and hard work according to Matthews. The process included input from institutions accredited by other accrediting agencies and from providers who might wish to participate in AQC.

According to Matthews, DEAC is careful to separate AQC from full-fledged accreditation since this process is not approved by the Department of Education or CHEA. Consumers were mostly left to their own devices to evaluate course quality. AQC’s helps fill that void.

Perceptions on AQC from a “Provider”

WCET member StraighterLine provides low cost, online courses offered individually or on a subscription basis.  It is one of the two providers to achieve the initial AQC recognition. CEO Burck Smith is a former member of WCET’s Executive Council, so I reached out to him to get his input on AQC.

“DEAC is to be congratulated for taking a leadership role in reviewing curricula and courses from providers outside of traditional higher education,” said Smith. “StraighterLine is honored to have had its courses validated and vetted by acknowledged leaders in quality online education provision.”

Smith said that StraighterLine has sought third-party reviews from other sources and adds: “We have close to 90 colleges who have conducted their own individual evaluations of our courses and entered into articulation agreements with us.”

On his thoughts about accreditation, Smith said “At the highest level, accreditation provides three things 1) access to substantial taxpayer subsidies, 2) third party validation of quality for prospective students and other colleges, and 3) some degree of credit transferability. In exchange, you must offer entire degree programs and be subject to their review standards (which may make sense for a program, but don’t for stand-alone courses). For us, we believed that our price point was low enough that we could forego taxpayer subsidies, that articulation agreements with colleges would create credit transferability and that, eventually, enough 3rd party ‘Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval’ would equal or exceed accreditation as a stamp of quality.”

The Clamor Around Non-Credit Providers

You can probably blame it on the MOOC phenomenon, but there has been increased interest by policy-makers in the question of how non-credit educational opportunities fit into the educational puzzle.  It also helped that the emergence of “providers” such as StraighterLine and Sophia have also raised serious questions about alternative paths of learning.

Some policy examples:

  • ACE was quick to get on the bandwagon of reviewing MOOCs for credit-worthiness, which is not accreditation but does provide course-level review that is used by many colleges in recognizing externally-offered learning for credit purposes.
  • Senator Lee (R-UT) recently reintroduced his proposed legislation (S649), which would allow each state to “establish an alternative accreditation system for the purpose of establishing institutions that provide postsecondary education and postsecondary education courses or programs as eligible for funding under title IV…” Oy! If you thought state authorization was bad, this could be a real headache.
  • The Council on Higher Education Accreditation has been trying to figure out a path to quality assurance for alternative providers and announced a Quality Platform Pilot. In partnerships with the Presidents’ Forum, they published the paper “Quality Assurance and Alternative Higher Education: A Policy Perspective” last year.
  • Inside Higher Ed recently published a nice summary of many of the issues around the review of alternative providers and competency-based education.

The reason that this issue is bubbling to the top is the expected reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which covers the many regulations regarding higher education and federal financial aid.  The big question is whether these alternative providers will be allowed into Title IV or other federal pots of funding. If so, what constraints will be place on them and do they really want to enter the world of regulatory oversight?

” We’re thrilled to be working with DEAC, it’s reflective of the semi-feverish activity going on to ‘own’ alternative credit review. CHEA announced a process,” said Burck Smith. “ACE has its Gates funded Alt-Credit project. Lamar Alexander issued a paper about it. David Bergeron and the New York billionaire are talking about it. The Department of Education is certainly interested. So, there’s a lot of activity which reflects the increasing inability to ignore the price differential of accredited v. unaccredited providers offering substantially similar offerings online.”

Leah Matthews says, “I see an increasing level of interest among higher education research groups and federal policy makers in alternative ways of assuring the quality of online learning that is offered outside of the domain of traditional institutions. I think it is incredibly important to continually visualize the future of online learning and think about how higher education is steadily transitioning to a more ‘learner-driven’ model.”  Besides the nascent “direct assessment” models for federal financial aid, she feels there has been little innovation in federal financial aid since the Higher Education Act of 1965.  We are still tied to the credit hour.

What does this mean for the future?

“Unaccredited providers are challenging a whole host of assumptions about higher education,” according to Smith. Chief among those is that “anyone can offer a college course. There’s nothing special about a course offered by a college or by some other provider — so long as the content, rigor and assessments are consistent (which they aren’t across all of higher ed). Therefore, online, accreditation is an arbitrary distinction that confers competitive advantages on one group of providers — usually much higher priced – than on the other equivalent set. As more students opt for lower priced offerings, colleges will have to acknowledge the validity of non-college courses.”

In looking to the future, Matthews she envisions a financial aid model that benchmarks on student achievement. As for the new “providers,” she sees the regulatory curiosity about them continue to grow. If they start receiving any federal money, they will face a new level of scrutiny that they have not previously encountered.

In my opinion, we are facing an evolving landscape that will no longer look like the traditional higher education structure that we experienced. For institutional leadership, those who do not recognize that the Earth is shifting beneath our feet do so at their own long-term peril.  For the regulatory landscape, there needs to be a balance between consumer protection and innovation. Unfortunately, finding that Goldilocks “just right” point is tricky business.

Congratulations to DEAC and we look forward to following the progress of AQC and other effort regarding non-institutional “providers.”


Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat
Ready for baseball and regulatory season.


Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
Twitter:  wcet_info and RussPoulin

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