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Planned Higher-Ed. Rules Shelved After Complaints

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The Education Department last week postponed publication of proposed regulations designed to tighten federal oversight of postsecondary institutions, in the wake of protests from the higher-education community that the rules would be unduly burdensome.

The "program integrity'' regulations, which were scheduled to be published in the Nov. 30 Federal Register, would increase the responsibilities of accrediting agencies and establish State Postsecondary Review Entities to toughen oversight of institutions' finances as well as their academic programs, as stipulated in the 1992 Higher Education Act amendments.

Postsecondary institutions must comply with accreditation regulations in order for their students to qualify for federal aid.

Higher-education officials charged that the regulations would be time consuming and expensive to carry out, go beyond what the law allows, and threaten the independence of colleges and universities.

Accrediting agencies, for example, would be required to assess institutions' recruiting and admissions practices, program lengths and costs, curricula, graduation rates, and loan-default rates.

For non-baccalaureate vocational programs, measures would include program-completion rates, job-placement rates, and students' performance on state licensing exams.

The proposed regulations are part of a broader effort by the department to improve accountability in postsecondary education, largely in response to revelations of fraud and abuse in the student-aid programs. (See Education Week, Nov. 17, 1993.)

'A Regulatory Straitjacket'

John A. Curry, the president of Northeastern University, contended that while Congress sought to eliminate aid abuse, particularly in proprietary schools, it "did not intend to place colleges and universities in a regulatory straitjacket.''

"The proposed regulations go far beyond the Act and imply a level of Federal control ... that is frankly shocking,'' Mr. Curry wrote in a letter to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Last month, David Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, urged the presidents of his association's member institutions to write to Mr. Riley. To date, he said, at least 100 presidents had done so.

"In the name of wishing to achieve quality and reduce costs, the very regulations which have been drafted will have the opposite effect,'' Mr. Warren charged. "They will drive up costs, they will drive down quality.''

NAICU has joined forces with the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges to publish their own proposal for improving institutional reviews.

Tony Calandro, the vice president for governmental relations for the Career College Association, was also critical of regulations that would allow the department to assess program costs and curriculum content.

A Level Playing Field?

"But we have no problem with outcome measurements'' such as job placement or graduation rates, Mr. Calandro added.

However, Mr. Calandro questioned the assertions of college officials that the department should focus its attention on for-profit trade schools.

"Congress applied the law to everybody and the Administration is applying it,'' he said, adding that his association is concerned that the department will allow institutions that grant two- and four-year degrees to undergo a less onerous oversight process than shorter training programs.

Whether a student attends a six-month program at a proprietary school or pursues a law-school degree, Mr. Calandro said, "there ought to be some measure that a prospective student can say, 'What are the chances of me graduating from this particular school and what are the chance of getting a job after I graduate?'''

The Education Department now expects to publish proposed regulations in January. In the interim, representatives of higher-education associations say they plan to meet with department officials to discuss their objections.

"The department is attempting to issue proposed regulations that reflect the concerns of the higher- education community and the intent of Congress for greater accountability,'' a spokeswoman for the department said last week.

The department expects to "receive considerable comment during the comment period on the proposed rules,'' she said.

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