US Dept of Education seeks greater control over Private Colleges and Universities

Erik Makrush Higher Education

The US Department of Education has proposed regulations that would mandate greater government control over private colleges and universities (including the 5 private institutions throughout Idaho) and the private-sector accreditation process that has served higher education for more than a century. The Department is using its regulatory authority under the Higher Education Act, the law that governs federal student loan and grant programs, to force this change.

Currently, colleges and universities may accept federal student aid if they have legal status within their home state and are accredited by an agency approved by the Department. Since the federal government has not, until recently, attempted to direct how states authorize private colleges and universities, state policies vary considerably.

Many states, including Idaho, rely on recognized national or regional accreditation, a process which is rigorous and nonpolitical, to provide in depth quality evaluation and monitoring. Idaho is the home of 31 accredited colleges and universities according US Department of Education, which would require major funding and oversight responsibility by the Legislature, Idaho State Department of Education, and the Idaho Board of Education.

The proposed regulations, if made final on November 1st this year, will mandate a one-size-fits-all federal definition of state authorization. Each state will have to redesign its authorization process to include “adverse action.” This presumably means individual states will have to establish guidelines, standards, and requirements against which institutions will be judged and approved or denied. A state legislature or executive agency would then determine whether private colleges and universities will be able to enroll students with federal loans or grants. Such changes would be at best duplicative of the accreditation process – and at worst a pretext for government interference into the curriculum, research, and culture of private academic institutions. Hence, Idaho and other states will have another unfunded mandate in oversight and responsibility in an economic challenging crisis.

Idaho Reporter.com recently reported that US Senator Jim Risch (Idaho) is working on legislation to stop the regulations. According to the article, “for-profit colleges and vocational programs, including online schools like the University of Phoenix and Argosy University, serve almost 1.8 million students and receive more than $20 billion in federal loans, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).” These on-line students are made-up of a wide range of demographics including, full-time employed person, graduate students seeking to improve their education credentials, and members of the military serving in the US and around the world.

Moreover, these regulations imply that each institution of higher education will have to receive authorization from every state in which it has a presence as opposed to just its home state. This becomes complex for colleges that offer on-line courses and degrees due to the potential reduced outreach to non-traditional students. It also removes potential free-market competitiveness across state-lines. Because states will likely interpret the regulatory language differently, institutions that operate in more than one state may be subjected to multiple, potentially conflicting requirements. While large institutions may be able to bear the cost of compliance, smaller institutions may find it too burdensome to serve students in more than one state.

The cost of accreditation is already significant. An accredited school must periodically undergo the self-study, peer review, site visit and judgment process that can take two years of time and considerable energy on the part of faculty, administrators and staff. It is unreasonable to add additional compliance costs to these institutions that are already in good standing with their accreditation bodies.

Finally, while the costs of increased government oversight of institutions of higher education are high, there will be little benefit to these institutions, their students, or the taxpayers should the regulations become final. The Department’s published justification asserts that a more “active” state government role is necessary because of unspecified “weaknesses” in the current system; yet bureaucrats could cite but one example-a temporary gap in state oversight over proprietary schools in California-to back up this claim. The description did not indicate if the interruption in service had any impact whatsoever. Even if one takes into account the recently publicized examples of 15 for-profit schools with unethical marketing practices, one cannot justify increased government control of more than 6,000 private schools to further police a small minority of bad actors.

Adopted from “No Political Oversight of Private Colleges” Centennial Institute Policy Brief No. 2010-1 By Krista Kafer