The Chronicle of Higher Education: Q&A: Lamar Alexander in His Own Words

Posted on November 3, 2014

Lamar Alexander—once a university president, then secretary of education, now a Republican senator from Tennessee—may soon find himself leading the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. In an email interview, The Chronicle asked Mr. Alexander about his record and his plans. Here's that exchange, edited for length and clarity:

Q. You’ve created a task force on deregulating higher education. What will you do with its recommendations? What do you consider the most onerous regulations affecting institutions?

A. My principal goal in higher education is to deregulate it. The marketplace of over 6,000 American higher-education institutions is the best in the world, but the institutions need freedom to adjust to the new ways of learning that have arrived with the Internet age, to rid themselves of inefficient practices, and to continuously improve quality.

There have been eight reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act since 1965, and the stack of regulations that colleges deal with has grown twice as tall as I am. Senators [Barbara] Mikulski, [Richard] Burr, [Michael] Bennet, and I formed the task force—headed by the chancellors of Vanderbilt University and the University System of Maryland—to look at deregulation of higher education, identify specific and particularly troubling regulations, and propose ideas for future regulatory reform.

We established the task force because we are not involved in the day-to-day operations of an institution—they will know which regulations are really the most onerous, costly, and interfering with institutional autonomy. I hope that recommendations from the task force will be used as a blueprint and guide to "weed the garden" as Congress prepares for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Q. Your plan to simplify the federal student-aid form has gotten a somewhat skeptical response from student-aid administrators, who point out that hardly anyone fills out the paper Fafsa anymore. Others worry that streamlining aid programs is shorthand for cutting student aid. What’s your response to those arguments?

A. It’s absurd to have 108 questions on the Fafsa form and nine different repayment options for students. The president of Southwest Tennessee Community College, in Memphis, told me he loses an estimated 1,500 students per semester because families are intimidated by the form. Experts from every direction told our committee last year that we could get 95 percent of the information we need by asking two questions—one about family size and one about family income.

We may not be able to reduce the number of questions to two, but surely we can be closer to two than 108, and save high-school counselors, college administrators, families, and students a lot of time, and remove a barrier to access. Tennessee has become the first state to make community college tuition-free, and every student who applies for that option has to fill out this form. I don’t want it to be a barrier to their success.

Q. At a recent hearing, you expressed doubts about President Obama’s college-ratings plan, saying that while performance-based funding may work for Tennessee and some other states, it shouldn’t be imposed on everyone. Do you support ratings that aren’t tied to federal funding?

A. The federal government shouldn’t be in the business of designing a federal college-ratings system, and I believe the department’s attempt will fall on its face.

Q. Where are for-profit colleges succeeding, and where are they failing? Will you try to block the "gainful employment" rule?

A. If the administration wants to weed out bad actors among the over 6,000 public and private colleges and universities, the gainful-employment regulation is not the way to do it. This regulation could shut down a bachelor’s-degree nursing program at a for-profit institution but not one in exactly the same circumstances at a nonprofit or public institution.

The regulation will fail 840,000 students in three ways: First, this rule will kick them out of their colleges when states and other institutions can’t possibly accommodate them. Second, it takes away their ability to make decisions about where they want to get an education and tells them the federal government knows better. Third, this regulation does nothing to ensure that students are receiving a quality education in the program they are pursuing.

Much accountability on colleges and universities comes from our competitive marketplace. For-profit colleges have been successful at attracting nontraditional students—including working parents and military veterans—and I think our public and nonprofit institutions could learn something from them on how to create an environment attractive to these students. Higher-education bad actors aren’t limited to the for-profit world.