Last month Ivy Bridge College, a two-year online degree program,was ordered to discontinue operations. With the help of technology firm Altius Education, Ohio-based Tiffin College created Ivy Bridge in 2010 to deliver associate’s degrees to students. The Ivy Bridge partnership primarily served low-income working adults (69 percent are below the federal poverty line), for many of whom the traditional college path was unworkable.
Just three years ago Tiffin College’s accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), praised the partnership between Tiffin and Ivy Bridge College, approving their accreditation. In 2010, when the Higher Learning Commission renewed Tiffin’s accreditation, among other glowing praise, the HLC stated, “The concept of the Ivy Bridge partnership is an excellent strategic initiative. It addresses an underserved population through a strong curriculum, efficient and effective academic support, excellent instruction, and a very good online portal for program delivery.”
Yet, according to an op ed in the Toledo Blade by Tiffin President, Paul Marion, all of a sudden, in 2013, “the business structure of our joint venture does not meet [the HLC’s] current policies on partnerships.”
As Marion wrote, “Most of these students are adults with busy lives, who may not be able to achieve a college education through the traditional format. Most students in our online associate’s degree programs are women with children. Many of them have jobs in addition to their family responsibilities.”
What’s more, Marion notes that more than 150 colleges across the country signed agreements guaranteeing students who earn a Tiffin associate’s degree through Ivy Bridge admittance into their four-year institutions. Clearly they thought Ivy Bridge was providing enough of a quality education that transfer students would find success as they moved forward toward a bachelor’s degree. The partnership had also received significant grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
According to “disruptive-innovation” expert Michael Horn, Altius had begun the process of acquiring independent accreditation for Ivy Bridge, so that it could operate autonomously from Tiffin. Horn writes that he doesn’t know exactly how things unfolded between the HLC and Ivy Bridge, but that “it doesn’t take a genius to posit some educated guesses.” Horn continues:
This might be great for existing colleges and universities, but it works against innovative entrants that might help students. . . . There was one alternative method though to gain accreditation, which was a logical one. If the provider had a good track record—as Ivy Bridge has had—then the provider could get its accreditation fast-tracked. But of course that would inadvertently allow in a new entrant that might innovate and disrupt the traditional higher education institutions. Which is essentially what Altius and Ivy Bridge intended to do.
More than anything else, accreditation has become a barrier to entry. Since the mid-twentieth century, the accreditation system has morphed into a powerful and rigid system whereby a few large regional and national accrediting agencies have a tremendous amount of power over higher education. The cozy club that is today’s accreditation regime provides very few indicators of quality, yet creates significant hurdles for new upstarts looking to enter the higher-ed market. Ivy Bridge College’s experience is a perfect illustration.