A bipartisan group of senators established, in 2013, the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education to help inform efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Made up of 16 college, university, and association presidents and chancellors, the task force established broad goals: summarize the increasing burden of federal regulations; identify regulations of particular concern, explain them, and recommend changes; and, offer long-term process improvements. The Senate sponsors of the task force were Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Richard Burr (R-NC), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Michael Bennett (D-CO).
The American Council on Education provided staffing support for the task force, which took more than a year to complete its work. NACUBO also provided input about the particular concerns of business officers.
Critiques, Clarity, Compliance
The task force’s final report, Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities, released earlier this year, is highly critical of the Department of Education’s oversight of colleges and universities.
The report states that institutions “find themselves enmeshed in a jungle of red tape, facing rules that are often confusing and difficult to comply with.”
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), chaired by Sen. Alexander, held a hearing Feb. 24 to discuss the report’s findings. Task force co-chairs, William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland; and Nicholas Zeppos, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, both testified.
Arguing that “smarter rules are needed,” the report laid out 12 guiding principles for improving the regulatory scheme of the Department of Education (ED):
- Regulations should be related to education, student safety, and stewardship of federal funds.
- Regulations should be clear and comprehensible.
- Regulations should not stray from clearly stated legislative intent.
- Costs and burdens of regulations should be accurately estimated.
- Clear safe harbors should be created.
- The department should recognize good faith efforts by institutions.
- The department should complete program reviews and investigations in a timely manner.
- Penalties should be imposed at a level appropriate to the violation.
- Disclosure requirements should focus on issues of widespread interest.
- All substantive policies should be subject to the “notice-and-comment” requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act.
- Regulations that consistently create compliance challenges should be revised.
- The department should take all necessary steps to facilitate compliance by institutions.
Of Special Interest to CBOs
Among the regulations addressed in the 144-page document are rules for return of Title IV funds when a student withdraws, the financial responsibility standards, voluminous consumer information requirements, and campus safety rules.
- Return of Title IV funds (R2T4). While funds “not earned” by a student must be returned to the government, the regulations related to the return of Title IV funds are overly complex, requiring more than 200 paragraphs of regulatory text, supplemented by over 200 pages in the Federal Student Aid Handbook.
- Financial responsibility standards. ED is responsible for making accurate assessments of institutions’ financial well-being. However, the department has incorrectly interpreted and implemented the accounting definitions and standards used to calculate the financial responsibility composite scores for nonprofit institutions.
- Uniform definition of Clery crimes. The Clery Act requires institutions to report incidents, using definitions that can conflict with the Uniform Crime Reporting definitions, creating confusion for campus law enforcement. To improve uniformity and effectiveness in reporting crime statistics under the Clery Act, the department should rely on the expertise of the Department of Justice in creating UCR definitions for crimes; and Clery Act reporting should be consistent with these definitions.
“This report,” noted Sen. Alexander, “will guide our efforts to weed the garden and allow colleges to spend more of their time and money educating students, instead of filling out mountains of paperwork.”
NACUBO CONTACT Anne Gross, vice president, regulatory affairs, 202.861.2544