In a rapidly changing context, US institutions of higher education are struggling amidst myriad pressures related, for example, to funding, accountability, standardisation and technology. In particular, pressures on ‘progressive’ or non-traditional colleges are immense. These schools, which have historically emphasised individualised, student-centred pedagogy, access and diversity, experimentation and a commitment to social justice, are in danger of losing their distinctive vision as the challenges they face have undermined their practices and thrown into question their identity, if not their survival. This essay argues, first, that if progressive institutions are to sustain their distinctive approach, they must not succumb to demands that drive them towards the conventional, but rather must use these challenges to renew their practice; second, that they must examine creative tensions, the perennial questions that reflect a generative interplay between competing values; and, third, that they must remain mindful of the principles undergirding their progressive vision. Mining these tensions as opportunities for grappling with the pressures at hand, the essay provides examples of possibilities for progressive change. Instead of slipping into the conventional or succumbing to despair, the essay shows that we can respond creatively to the challenges all higher education and especially progressive institutions face today.