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Repealing Rules Helps Colleges but Hurts Students

Fixing New Higher Education Regulations Requires Compromise, Not Retraction

Julie Margetta Morgan argues that policymakers should be working with the Education Department to adopt sensible rules that address gaps in our higher education system—not retracting the rules altogether.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed H.R. 2117 last week, a bill that would repeal two regulations the Department of Education promulgated as part of its effort to ensure the integrity of postsecondary education programs that receive federal financial aid. The bill, introduced by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), retracts the department’s definition of the credit hour and its requirement that all colleges seek authorization from the states in which they operate. Many of the major associations that represent colleges and universities support the bill.

There are legitimate reasons to think that the Education Department’s definition of the credit hour is not ideal, as we wrote last year. And colleges are right to worry about the implementation of the state authorization rules. But policymakers should be working with the department to implement these rules in a sensible way—not trying to repeal them altogether.

The integrity of American higher education is in question these days, and not just for-profit colleges. It’s clear that all institutions need to start shaping up, considering the stagnant degree completion rates, evidence that students do not learn very much, and the growing cost to consumers and to the government. The credit hour and state authorization rules address gaping holes in our higher education system. Through these rules, the department will improve the quality and integrity of the system without infringing on colleges’ autonomy or causing them undue expense.

The first rule that’s in jeopardy in H.R. 2117 is simply a mechanism to force colleges to adhere to state laws they’re currently flouting. The state authorization rule would give states the ability to enforce their right to require that all colleges operating within their jurisdictions be authorized to do so.

States already require that colleges seek authorization. But many do not, particularly for the online education programs they offer that operate in all 50 states. States have no way of knowing which colleges operate within their states unless they operate a physical campus. They thus have no way to ensure that all colleges adhere to state law. The state authorization rule simply requires that, as a condition for receipt of federal aid, colleges verify that they have authorization from the states in which they operate.

The second rule addressed in H.R. 2117 targets the fact that there is no common understanding of what colleges mean when they use the word “credit” by providing a definition for the credit hour. That is, colleges are all using the same language, but they mean very different things when they use the word “credit.” The most egregious result is the abuse of this at colleges like American InterContinental University, which inflated their credits to the point where they offered nine college credits for courses of only five weeks in length.

Until the rule goes into effect, there is no way to know whether a credit earned at one college signifies the same amount of learning as a credit earned at another. A common definition will directly address colleges that have been inflating their credits to garner more student financial aid. But it will also help mitigate the widespread problems students face transferring credit from one institution to another by articulating more precisely the learning represented by the credits a student earned.

These rules identify some basic flaws in the way our higher education system operates to date and attempt to rectify them. It’s understandable that policymakers might differ on how to address these flaws. But Rep. Foxx’s bill goes beyond striking down the Education Department’s solutions—it prohibits the secretary of education from promulgating any definition for the credit hour. In her estimation, having no common understanding of the basic building block of a college degree—the credit—is not a problem.

As the size of the Pell Grant rises to $34 billion dollars, taxpayers and policymakers are right to expect colleges to work to improve the quality and integrity of their programs. Instead of turning a blind eye to the credit hour and state authorization issues, legislators should work to find a solution that promotes integrity without limiting colleges’ ability to innovate in ways that benefit students.

Julie Margetta Morgan is a Policy Analyst at American Progress.

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Julie Margetta Morgan

Director of Postsecondary Access and Success