Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander: ’Weeding the Garden’ of Federal Regulations on Higher Education

Posted on March 2, 2015

The Higher Education Act totals nearly 1,000 pages. There are more than 1,000 pages in the official Code of Federal Regulations devoted to higher education, and on average every workday the Department of Education issues one new sub-regulatory guidance directive or clarification.  

No one has taken the time to weed the garden, and America’s 6,000 colleges and universities are living in a “jungle of red tape” that is expensive, confusing and unnecessary.

The result of this piling up of regulations is that one of the greatest obstacles to innovation and cost consciousness in higher education has become the federal government.

That is why the Senate education committee that I chair held our first hearing this Congress on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act last week, during which we discussed how findings in a report by a group of distinguished educators—and commissioned by Senators Mikulski, Burr, Bennet, and me—can help guide our efforts to weed the garden and allow colleges to spend more of their time and money educating students. Educators who worked on the report included Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nick Zeppos—who co-chaired the effort and also testified at the education committee—and Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association.

The document entitled “Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities,” outlines 59 specific regulations, requirements and areas for Congress and the Department of Education to consider—listing 10 especially problematic regulations.

The report makes clear that colleges and taxpayers expect appropriate regulation. But neither taxpayers nor colleges are well-served by the jungle that exists today. Consumer information that is too complicated to understand is worthless.

Colleges must report the amount of foreign gifts they receive and disclose the number of fire drills that occurred on campus. “Gainful employment” disclosures require 30 different pieces of information for each academic program subject to the regulation.

When a student withdraws from college before a certain time period, a student’s federal money must be returned to the government. This is a simple concept, yet the regulations and guidance implementing this are ridiculously complex – 200 paragraphs of regulatory text accompanied by 200 pages in the Federal Student Aid Handbook.

Institutions offering distance education are subject to an additional set of bureaucracy that can result in additional costs of $500,000 to $1 million for compliance.

All of these are examples of colleges and universities spending time and money on compliance with federal rules – and not on students. These examples, and others like them, represent sloppy, inefficient governing that wastes money, hurts students, discourages productivity and impedes research. 

With bipartisan support and this groundbreaking report, I feel sure that our committee can send a Higher Education Act reauthorization bill to the Senate floor this year that will eliminate unnecessary red tape, save student’s money, and remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles to innovation in the best system of higher education in the world.

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