The Risks in Betsy DeVos’ Rethink of Higher Education

Betsy DeVos speaks during a round-table discussion, December 2018.

In its first two years, the Trump administration bent over backwards to gut Obama administration regulations designed to hold colleges or programs accountable for ripping off students. Now, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is kicking 2019 off with an attempt to dismantle bedrock protections created decades ago that define what it means to receive a college education and the role gatekeepers play in conducting quality oversight.

This week, the U.S. Department of Education detailed exactly how it plans to accomplish its goals. The elimination of these protections risks the proliferation of poor-quality schools in the name of innovation, leading to more dead ends and broken promises for students.

Efforts to implement these changes kick off next week and negotiations will take months. But the Center for American Progress got its first look at what exactly the Trump administration hopes to accomplish. Here are the five biggest risks in the Department’s agenda.

Fast path to cash for unvetted institutions

The most dangerous proposal is a provision that would allow colleges to simply sell their name, accreditation, and their access to federal financial aid to unvetted educational providers. It would allow colleges to outsource up to 100 percent of a program to an unaccredited education provider with very few restrictions. (Current rules cap outsourcing at half a program with approval from the accreditation agency.) These types of agreements can result in a bait and switch, where students believe they are paying for one institution but are receiving something entirely different, as these types of arrangements may not be obvious when a student enrolls.

Lowering requirements to federal recognition for new accreditors while weakening oversight of existing ones

The proposal would lower the bar for new accrediting agencies participating in the federal student aid system, allowing agencies with minimal experience evaluating colleges to serve as gatekeepers to taxpayer money. Under current regulation, accreditors have to show that they have performed quality evaluations and accredited colleges for at least two years before it can be eligible for federal recognition. Under the new regulation, agencies could become eligible after approving just one program or institution—with no requirement related to the length of time.

Other changes would allow accrediting agencies to quickly change the types of programs or institutions they oversee with little transparency. Today, if an accrediting agency that has authority to approve certificate-granting programs wants to suddenly approve bachelor degrees, it has to apply for what is called a change of scope—a lengthy process that requires multiple levels of review. However, new rules eliminate the requirement that the agency shows it has experience making these approvals. The decision to allow accreditors to approve new programs would now be left solely up to the education secretary. Agencies looking to offer master’s degrees, which the department has said leads to credential inflation, would undergo stricter scrutiny.

The proposal would also weaken the process for when an accreditor is federally recognized every five years in order to prove it is effectively assuring quality. Under new rules, the accreditor recognition process would only require agencies to provide a yet undetermined amount of documentation that will be listed in the Federal Register. This move would limit the department’s ability to ask for additional documentation when an accreditor is not doing its job. In evaluating an accreditor, the Department of Education would not be able to consider lawsuits against institutions the agency accredits unless the institution admits wrongdoing. For example, the troubled Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) oversaw 17 institutions, campuses, or corporate entities that were under investigation or engaged in lawsuits. These colleges received $5.7 billion in federal funds over three years. These lawsuits and investigations, which usually resulted in settlements where the institution did not admit wrongdoing, could not be used to evaluate whether an accreditor is an effective gatekeeper.

Finally, the proposed rules create a new category in its federal oversight of accreditors called “substantial compliance,” which would allow accreditors that do not meet federal recognition criteria to continue operating as a gatekeeper while submitting monitoring reports to the department—all without public review. Unlike the rules today, an accreditor must come into compliance in a limited amount of time and publicly go before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). Notably, ACICS, as part of its recent reinstatement, was required to submit monitoring reports to the secretary of education. Under these rules, the reports will presumably not be reviewed by NACIQI, which eliminates transparency and public input.

Eliminates definitions guaranteeing the basic amount of education a college must provide

The proposal would eliminate rules on the basic level of education college must provide. For example, the proposal eliminates the federal definition of a credit hour. The credit hour is a way to measure a student’s amount of aid eligibility.  The federal definition of the credit hour was established in 2010 to create a minimum standard and correct for abuses in the aid program. Accrediting agencies’ failure to conduct oversight in the past has led to egregious credit inflation, allowing institutions to charge students more money for less education.

Other changes would water down the requirement that distance education programs provide regular and substantive interaction. For more than a decade, the phrase “regular and substantive” has been used to draw the distinction between “correspondence courses” and “distance education” and was first introduced in statute to correct for fraud and abuse in the aid programs among correspondence courses. The distinction is critical because correspondence courses are largely self-study courses in which faculty provide no meaningful instruction. Weakening this rule will result in students paying thousands of dollars for, essentially, an online textbook.

In addition to credit hour and regular and substantive requirements, the proposals abandon federal standards and allow accreditors to define distance education and correspondence courses. Allowing each accreditor to come up with their own definition would result in inconsistency across accreditation agencies, a problem that already creates plenty of confusion. Differing definitions could complicate students attempts to transfer credits, since different measures would be used.

Creating and changing programs with no accreditor oversight while weakening accreditors ability to act

The proposal would allow institutions to fundamentally change programs and add locations without approval from their accreditor. Under current substantive change regulation, accreditors are required to review proposed changes that are significant departures from an institution’s educational mission, its programs, or its mode of delivery since the institution’s last accreditation review. Many of these changes were put in place in 1994 to address loopholes that colleges abused to quickly create new colleges, programs, and locations, typically of poor quality. For example, one accrediting agency that accredited a cosmetology school extended accreditation to programs that the school offered in jet airplane mechanics, air conditioning, and refrigeration without evaluating the quality of those programs. Under new regulation, an institution only has to have one new branch or location reviewed and approved by its accreditor and then just has to notify an accreditor if it adds more locations.

To make matters worse the proposal would weaken an accreditor’s ability to take action against an institution that is not meeting standards. Today, an accreditor is required to take action against a school that is not meeting standards, and schools have a limited amount of time to come into compliance before its accreditation is at risk. When a college is placed on sanction, the accreditor is required to inform students and the public of the action and specify where the college is falling short. Under new regulations, the accreditor has to first notify a college and provide them an opportunity to respond and come into compliance with no minimum time limit before the accrediting agency must act. While accreditors can create their own timeline, this would allow troubled institutions to continue to receive federal money and enroll students potentially for years without any public awareness that there is a problem.

Allows failed institutions to continue collecting taxpayer money while eliminating loan discharges for students

Changes to regulation would allow institutions that lose accreditation or access to federal funds because they are financially insolvent; engaging in fraudulent practices; or failing to serve their students the ability to keep receiving federal aid for an additional four months. The department is offering this period so that the school can give students an opportunity to finish their studies or transfer their credits to another school. In regulations released earlier this summer, the department proposed eliminating a student’s ability to receive a closed school loan discharge if the school offered a teach-out agreement,  which provides students the ability to continue studies at another school. However, these agreements do not always guarantee that students are given a quality option that meets their needs. Under these changes, students would be forced to accept these agreements, eliminating their ability to seek a closed school loan discharge.

Conclusion

Department of Education official Diane Auer Jones recently said of the rule-making, “[A]ccreditation is right at the crux of nearly everything you do in higher ed.” She’s right. The changes, combined, would be a recipe for disaster and diminish quality across the higher education system. Nearly all of the regulations targeted in the upcoming rule-making were put in place to protect against fraud. If the department achieves its goals, the unraveling of key regulations has the potential to severely diminish the quality of our higher education system and open a spigot of taxpayer money flowing to low-quality education providers at the expense of students.

Antoinette Flores is an associate director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.