The new innovator's dilemma is especially evident -- and troubling -- in higher education, where a revolution is underway. There is need for dramatic change. Tuition and related costs continue to outpace inflation. Student debt now exceeds consumer credit card debt. Bachelor degree completion rates hover around 50 percent in six years (that's right: six years) -- far worse for minority students. Yet most institutions of higher education continue to offer education in the traditional way and traditional setting. And the quasi-governmental accreditation agencies that monitor those institutions seem determined to help them continue to do that.
The politics of the local taxi commissions and hotel industry advocates are relatively easy to understand. But in higher education, a similar pattern unfolds. Accreditors (which started at the turn of the century as a way for universities to share best practices) now set standards that have a dramatic impact on higher education cost and quality. Lesser known than Uber and Airbnb, Altius Education developed Ivy Bridge College -- an innovative online community college that was beating the odds -- in partnership with Tiffin University in Ohio. Ivy Bridge students are primarily low-income, adult learners; 50 percent are women who care for dependents and 82 percent are first-generation college students. The program was on a promising trajectory, producing completion rates double that of community college averages. Over 150 well-respected colleges and universities around the country agreed to accept their graduates into 4 year programs. They received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to pioneer a sub $5,000 associate degree.
This summer, despite its promising start, higher education regulators shut down Ivy Bridge College, out of concerns that the new model was not adequately controlled by any incumbent institution. The Ivy Bridge College fiasco sends a powerful message to Silicon Valley innovators that want to tackle big problems in higher education: if you have great ideas that college and students want and benefit from -- beware!
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Ben Wallerstein launched Grayling’s education practice in 2000, and in 2009 co-founded Whiteboard Advisors, a Grayling sister firm that provides policy and research counsel. Today, he leads the innovation and advocacy practice in Grayling’s Washington, DC office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the views expressed here are his own.