From Your Lobbyist: What’s Up With the Department of Ed’s Neg Reg?
January 16, 2019
In addition to spending the first two years trying to dismantle regulations that protect student borrowers and hold institutions accountable for providing a valuable education, the Department of Education’s latest efforts include gutting rules regarding accreditation that would weaken oversight and accountability. Because it remains funded and operational despite other agencies being shut down, the Department of Education, on January 15th, launched a major higher education negotiated rulemaking (i.e. neg reg) that is highly controversial and could have serious consequences for students and borrowers.
While Secretary DeVos and the Trump Administration claim the goal of the negotiated rulemaking “is to reduce the regulatory burden on colleges and allow for greater innovation and flexibility in higher education” many student and consumer groups claim it is a deregulatory attempt to eviscerate accountability and establish a totally self-regulatory system for accreditors and institutions, which has proven time and again is harmful to student borrowers. Ultimately, the belief is that this rulemaking will further give bad acting schools and institutions unprecedented access to federal aid dollars with no accountability to provide a high-quality education.
One of the central aims of this effort is to eliminate regulations governing the higher education accreditation process, including allowing higher education institutions to outsource 100% of a individual programs to unaccredited providers. The current rules require that accreditors approve requests to outsource no more than 50% of programs. Essentially, this means that a school receiving federal dollars could outsource 100% of the program to an unaccredited school leaving students and borrowers unaware of the shoddy education they may be receiving from the alternate provider. At a time where school closures are leaving millions of students with crushing debt and no valuable education to speak of, the Department of Education should be strengthening accreditation and oversight, not weakening the protections in place for student borrowers.
Below are the additional aspects of the proposed rules that are bad for students and borrowers because if enacted they would:
- Force “teach out” option: The proposed rule would allow closing institutions to continue receiving federal aid for four months if they merely offer a “teach out option” – essentially forcing the students to finish their degree at another institution and making it nearly impossible for them to discharge their loans. This basically eviscerated some of the protections guaranteed in the borrower defense rules.
- Lower the requirements for new accreditor recognition: Under the current rules, accreditors have to have been approving programs and colleges for at least two years before being recognized by the federal government. Under these rules, accreditors can be recognized for approving even just one program or college, without any requirements about time or quality.
- Allow accreditors to change scope of the programs they oversee: Under current rules, agencies have to go through a multi-level process to change the scope of the type of programs they oversee. The new rule would eliminate the multi-level process and give the sole discretion to the Secretary of Education. Essentially, an accrediting agency could decide on whim it wants to approve bachelor’s degree programs with no experience in doing so and the Secretary could approve it with little review.
- Weaken ability for accreditors to hold institutions accountable: Under current rules, if an institution is not meeting federal standards, accreditors must take action against the school and notify the students and the public. This rule would require the accreditor to give the institution a chance to reply and defend itself before taking action, with no limit on the amount of time a school has to reply – meaning it could continue receiving federal aid for an indefinite amount of time while out of compliance.
- Weaken accountability for accreditors who are out of compliance: Under the current rules, an accreditor out of compliance has a limited amount of time to correct the situation and go publicly before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). These rules would allow the accreditor to continue operating and if the Secretary requires, submit a “monitoring report” that provides little transparency about whether the agency is working towards compliance and how it is being monitored by ED.
- Eliminates definition for a credit hour: The credit hour rule was established to prevent credit inflation, charging students more for less education, and to measure aid eligibility.
- Weaken requirements for distance programs and online programs: Under current rules, there is a clear distinction between “correspondence programs” and “distance education” as measured by whether the program is “regular and substantive”. This distinction helped ensure a program was being taught/managed by a professor providing meaningful instruction. Essentially, these rules would make it easier for an institution to offer a program with little to no instruction that could cost thousands for students. Additionally, the rules allow accreditors to define these programs, possibly resulting in multiple definitions, lack of clarity, and poor quality.
Over the next few months, higher education experts on the negotiated rulemaking panel will hash out these proposals and try to come to consensus on the changes. If no consensus is reached by the negotiated rulemakers, the Department will be free to move forward in attempts to finalize their proposals. In both cases however, the proposed changes will still need to go through a public comment period before becoming final rules. AYA will continue to keep our members informed about the policy changes that will most affect you and offer every opportunity to engage when possible.