DeVos Deregulation Will Leave College Students in the Lurch

Blog Post
Gage Skidmore / CC2.0
Jan. 7, 2019

New America today published a Neg-Reg 101 website with background papers on the issues covered by this agenda, details on the process for negotiated rulemaking, and links to lots of helpful information. Check it out here!

One week from launching negotiations to rewrite key regulations governing higher education, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released her proposals -- and they paint a grim picture for the future of college in America. Taken together, the proposals are designed to make it easier for schools to take students’ money, and harder for states, accreditors, and the Department itself to hold them accountable when they provide a poor-quality education.

It’s hard to get your arms around the enormity of the proposal -- as the Department had promised in a previous notice, the regulatory changes touch on over a dozen issues, covering everything from accreditation, to the definitions of online programs, to state authorization, to TEACH Grants. To manage all the issues, the Department will hold a full committee meeting to address issues like accreditation and the outsourcing of educational programs to unaccredited providers and vote on the whole spectrum of topics; and three separate subcommittees to negotiate and make recommendations to the full committee on distance education, participation of faith-based entities, and TEACH Grants. The structure is unorthodox, to say the least. Negotiators won’t have time to fully debate the issues or expertise to understand everything on the table and how they relate to each other, and they have little chance of reaching consensus -- without which the Department has the discretion to publish any rule it wants.

Some of the biggest changes are with accreditation. The Department is proposing to limit required reviews for colleges that are changing the types of programs they offer to fewer circumstances, allowing schools to shape-shift before regulators can keep pace. And though accreditors would have to sign off on it in some cases, institutions would be permitted to outsource entire programs to unaccredited education providers -- a bait-and-switch where the college rents its name (and its accreditation) without contributing much, or even anything, to the education.

Accreditors themselves won’t be held to high standards, either. The Department is proposing to eliminate requirements that new accrediting agencies demonstrate at least two years of experience -- opening the door to a host of untested new accreditors that will have gatekeeping authority over taxpayer dollars. DeVos is also proposing to make it easier for recognized accrediting agencies to expand their scopes of recognition so they can serve as gatekeepers for new types of programs with less oversight from the Department and NACIQI, an advisory body on accreditation matters. And she wants to limit Department staff’s ability to ask for additional documentation and consider important factors like state and federal agency lawsuits against an institution in their reviewing and approving--or not--accrediting agencies.

Add that to some of the Department’s other changes, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Secretary DeVos’ proposal would blur the lines between distance education programs and correspondence courses -- a sector that has seen decades of abuses, especially of student veterans, by unscrupulous education providers that saw a get-rich-quick opportunity to sell a poor-quality education as ‘flexible’ and ‘innovative.’ It effectively nullifies the credit hour definition, increasing the risk for abuses of federal financial aid dollars and students’ own out-of-pocket expenses. And it would eliminate requirements that online programs be authorized to operate in all the states in which they enroll students, as well as disclosures to students with key information about their programs, like whether they meet the licensure requirements where the students live.

All in all, the proposals are difficult to see as anything less than an all-out assault on higher education. If the final rule looks anything like the language Secretary DeVos proposed, it will create--by design--trapdoors to $130 billion every year in federal financial aid for a seedy underbelly of higher education and a promise of less oversight within the decades-old program integrity triad responsible for ensuring the protection of federal financial aid dollars. With little back-stop against predatory actors and poor-quality education, students will be the ones to pay the biggest price.

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Higher Education Accountability & Consumer Protection