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House Bill Aims to Let Colleges Off the Hook

Repealing Rules to Keep Schools Honest Is Bad for Students and Taxpayers

SOURCE: AP/Chuck Burton

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), above, and House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN) are pushing to repeal regulations that set a common definition of the credit hour and ensure that colleges adhere to state laws.

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The House of Representatives will vote today on H.R. 2117, a bill that would repeal rules that maintain the quality and integrity of educational programs that taxpayers pay roughly $40 billion in student financial aid to each year. Many major higher education associations support this bill.

House Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN) claims that repealing these regulations is a step toward tackling rising college costs. It’s simply not true. Those who support H.R. 2117 are trying to protect colleges from additional regulation at the expense of students and taxpayers. Repealing these program integrity standards would allow low-quality educational institutions to continue receiving federal financial aid, and students will end up wasting both their own money and the federal government’s when they pursue worthless credentials.

H.R. 2117 seeks to repeal the Education Department’s newly coined definition for the term “credit hour.” One may be surprised to learn that although most colleges define their degrees by the number of credits accumulated, there’s no common definition for what a credit is. Some for-profit colleges have exploited this ambiguity by inflating their credits to the point where one school offered nine college credits for a five-week course. The new credit hour definition puts a stop to such practices by instituting a common understanding of what the term “credit” means.

The bill would also repeal a regulation commonly called the “state authorization rule.” This rule is simply a mechanism to ensure that colleges adhere to state laws they are currently flouting. States already require that colleges seek authorization to operate within their borders, but enforcement can be difficult. With the rapid proliferation of online education programs, a state has no way of knowing who is operating within its jurisdiction unless the college maintains a physical campus. The state authorization rule requires that programs receiving federal financial aid verify that they have authorization from the states they operate within.

To sum it up, the House of Representatives is considering a bill that would repeal the Education Department’s efforts to set a common definition for the credit hour—the foundation of the college degree and the increment by which the federal government doles out financial aid dollars. The bill would also prohibit federal efforts to help states keep low-quality education providers from operating without authorization within their borders.

As we wrote last year—the previous time H.R. 2117 was up for consideration in the House Education and Workforce Committee—the credit hour definition and the state authorization rule are not perfect. But it’s ludicrous to think that the status quo—wasteful spending on inflated credit hours and little regulation of online education providers—is better.

Legislators and colleges should be working with the Education Department to implement the rules in a sensible way rather than trying to repeal them. And policymakers like Rep. Kline and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) must be challenged when they claim that a bill like H.R. 2117 is somehow about helping students by reducing college costs. This bill is about protecting colleges and protecting business as usual.

Julie Margetta Morgan is a Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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