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.