Thursday, November 11, 2010

Heritage Foundation publishes "Federal Overreach into American Higher Education"

by: Matthew Denhart

Last week the Heritage Foundation published an analysis I wrote entitled Federal Overreach into American Higher Education (you can also download the pdf here). The study analyzes several of the U.S. Department of Education's (ED) proposed regulations of higher education, focusing specifically on state authorization, gainful employment and ED's federal definition of a credit hour.

Requiring state authorization of all postsecondary institutions wishing to remain eligible for Title IV funds would be a move-away from the current ineffective system of accreditation (see CCAP's recent study on the topic here). However, the proposal would simply shift power to state governments while still allowing them to rely on accrediting agencies to monitor institutional quality.Thus, although quality would not improve, this proposal would increase costs by requiring colleges to navigate another bureaucratic process. Furthermore, it would be a serious impediment to online institutions which would be forced to obtain separate authorization from each state in which they operate. Finally, and perhaps most troubling, this regulation would effectively give state governments the ultimate authority to determine which institutions have the right to operate.

ED's gainful employment proposal seeks to introduce outcomes-based accountability to higher education. However, it targets only for-profit and vocational based programs, giving the traditional higher education sector more or less a free pass. There are certainly bad actors in the higher education industry, yet the industry as a whole provides a valuable service to student populations that have thus-far been poorly served by the traditional sector. The current proposal would serve as a de facto price control on for-profit institutions, reducing competition, increasing costs, and limiting educational options for students.

The credit hour proposal defines a credit hour of academic time as one hour of classroom instruction plus two hours of out-of-class work per week. The main benefit from a standardized definition is to make it easier for students to transfer credits between institutions. Standardizing credit hours, however, does nothing to standardize educational quality. Indeed, one professor may deliver highly informative one-hour lectures while another teaches students nothing during class. Like the others, this proposal adds more layers of bureaucracy without doing anything to enhance student learning outcomes.

The ED insists on pushing forward with these proposals, despite their problems. All only give lip service to improving educational quality while really focusing on increasing the federal regulation of higher education, and the for-profit industry in particular. This would be a step in the wrong direction. Higher education desperately needs thoughtful approaches to improving quality and measuring student outcomes, not more regulations from Washington bureaucrats.


Glen S. McGhee said...

We are indebted to Matt for shifting through these extensive new rules, and for connecting the dots for us in his well thought-out review.

The recent changes to state authorization by the US Dept of Ed should be seen in the context of strengthening the gatekeeping Triad -- a gate that is generally understood as broken and locked in the open position. These new rules seek to augment the state presence in the Triad, since it is regarded as the weakest leg, at least in certain states.

Since the state authorization of schools and colleges is different for each state, these new rules can be seen as standardizing guidelines for what the states should have been doing all along. I agree that the "consumer complaint" emphasis in the rules may be something new, and wonder if someone can articulate where the legal basis for this lies -- as a logical extension of state authorization.

As Alan Contreras points out in his invaluable white paper on "The Legal Basis for Degree-Granting Authority in the United States," (2009), the state authorization requirement is already in 34 CFR 600.4(a)(3). See:
I highly recommend Alan's overview of an often misunderstood topic.

In Florida, however, there was a time in the late 1960s when both the state and SACS were arbiters of educational quality; soon after, however, the accreditors were able to convince the state to cede QA/QC functions solely to them, creating a legal monopoly. (The Florida legislature also repealed the requirement for the accreditation of its state community and junior colleges, primarily because it was assumed that they would be and that this did not even need to be formally stated!)

The study of educational standards in Florida when both the state and SACS were checking on schools found that 1/3 of the standards overlapped, 1/3 of the standards had no overlap, and 1/3 of the standards were actually in opposition with each other (McLendon, 1968).

Glen S. McGhee said...

Both the gainful employment and credit hour changes can be seen as part of the ongoing effort to get the accrediting guilds to enforce federal requirements. The problem is that the accreditors are peer-review oversight boards whose assessment and review activities are conducted by amateur volunteers, often poorly trained and indifferent to their duties. These volunteers are drawn from the institutions that they review, and, consequently, do not take seriously the enforcement component.

For quite some time now the US Dept of Ed has been attempting to change this mind-set, but, as we all know, it is easier to change procedures than an individual's attitudes, especially when their loyality lies with the very institutions they have been a part of for such a long time, and not the fiduciary responsibilities involved with determining Title IV eligibility.

What is interesting to me with regard to both the gainful employment and the credit hour regulations is that they involve methodological requirements. The methodological requirements are well developed, but the onus for determining application falls on the accreditors, not the schools. As the accreditors are forced to develop standards along these lines, standards that are binding on their members, the enforcement role will be emphasized.

Based on my observations, I don't think the accreditors are up to the task. One reviewer once commented that the regionals are "staggering" to keep up with the work-load imposed upon them.

And I wouldn't worry about increased costs to schools -- life for them without access to Title IV would be far, far worse. Instead, I think we need to be worried about the amateur volunteers that reluctantly shoulder fiduiary oversight of America's higher education system, whose loyalties are to the institutional system they help audit, and not to the American people. This creates an enormous conflict of interest, which, when it becomes apparent, will result in the federalization of accreditation, and the end to robo-accreditation as we know it.