The federal law governing much of higher education is some five years past its expiration date, with little chance that Congress will reauthorize it before the 2020 elections. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education has begun a broad regulatory overhaul to reshape core issues under the statute, known as the Higher Education Act.
On Monday the department released its recommendations for major changes in the rules regarding accreditation and how colleges qualify for federal financial aid. Approval by a federally recognized accrediting agency is a key condition for colleges to receive federal student-aid dollars — the lifeblood of most colleges.
Possible rule changes also include lowering requirements for colleges to operate online across multiple states, setting rules for distance learning, amending how religious colleges are treated by accreditors, and shifting the administration of federal grants for students who plan on classroom teaching, called Teach Grants.
Negotiated rule-making on all of those recommendations, which will involve representatives of various interested groups, are to begin in the middle of January. To handle the unusually wide range of topics, the department has formed a main committee and three subcommittees, which will meet over the next three months. If the groups do not reach consensus on new rules, the department will formulate its own regulations.
The proposed changes would largely reduce the level of federal oversight for accrediting agencies, would give those agencies more flexibility in approving colleges and programs to receive financial aid, and are meant encourage colleges to develop more-affordable and innovative models for educating students.
Accreditors would have more time and resources to focus on what happens in the classroom, Diane Auer Jones, the department's principal deputy under secretary, said in a call with reporters on Monday. The proposed changes were only starting points for the negotiations, she said.
Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said the department was raising some of the right questions about higher education.
But without a strong focus on the outcomes for individual students, she said, there is no way to know if the recommended changes are effective.
“They are saying, Let’s let accreditors and institutions innovate,” Peller said, “but without a way to measure quality and outcomes.”
Some of those changes, however, will be welcomed by accreditors, said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. One such change involves reducing accreditors’ responsibility to confirm that a college is complying with various federal requirements.
Accrediting groups and the accreditation council also support the department’s proposal to remove the federal definition of the credit hour, which links learning to time in class for the purpose of determining federal aid, and limiting the definition of “regular and substantive interaction” between students and faculty members in distance-education courses.
Improvement or Overreach?
But several proposals are also certain to get pushback during the negotiations.
One example is the department’s effort to have nonprofit colleges, most of them overseen by one of seven regional accreditors, accept more transfer credits from for-profit colleges, which are accredited largely by one of several national agencies.
The goal, said Jones, at the Education Department, is to eliminate the perception that regionally accredited institutions are superior to those that are nationally accredited. Students who earn credits from a for-profit college may have difficulty transferring those credits or going on to earn a graduate degree at a public or private nonprofit college, she said.
Eaton argued otherwise. “We’ve long called for accreditor neutrality,” she said in an interview, “but this is not a place the federal government needs to be.”
Another suggested change would limit the geographic scope of the regional accreditors to three to 10 states. That would affect the size of two accrediting agencies — the Higher Learning Commission, which oversees colleges in 19 north-central states, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, in 11 states.
But Eaton again questioned whether such a measure was appropriate for federal regulation at all: “How is it going to improve things?” she asked.
The question raises a deeper one, about whether the recommended changes really address the problems that the department is trying to solve. Those problems, such as claims of an increase in less-rigorous majors and the declining value of a college credential, were laid out in two white papers released by the department in December.
Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said in an email that the department had not done a good job of backing up its diagnosis with empirical research.
Department officials “didn’t do an awful job describing the few high-quality studies that they chose to include,” he said, “but they only included a few quality studies alongside some seemingly random websites.
“If one of my students turned in this paper as an assignment,” he continued, “I would send it back with guidance to include more rigorous research and fewer opinion pieces.”
Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at email@example.com.