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E.D. Releases Regulations To Strengthen Oversight of Colleges

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Washington

After several delays, the Education Department has released a set of controversial regulations designed to strengthen federal oversight of colleges and universities.

Although a notice of proposed rulemaking was originally scheduled to appear in the Nov. 30 Federal Register, the department postponed publication until last month to respond to intense criticism that had arisen among higher-education leaders privy to early versions of the rules. (See Education Week, Dec. 8, 1993.)

College presidents and higher-education lobbyists had charged that the proposed regulations were unduly burdensome and would threaten the independence of colleges and universities.

Released on Jan. 17 with a 55-day comment period, the draft regulations would increase accrediting agencies' responsibilities and would also establish State Postsecondary Review Entities to tighten oversight of institutions' finances and academic programs.

Both the accrediting-agency and SPRE regulations are part of a "program-integrity triad'' outlined in the 1992 Higher Education Act amendments. The program-integrity regulations were designed to improve accountability in response to revelations of fraud and abuse in student-aid programs that has resulted in the loss of millions of dollars.

The department expects to issue regulations outlining the third part of the triad--which will revamp the department's eligibility and certification process--sometime in the next few weeks, according to Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education David A. Longanecker.

Under the new regulations, accrediting agencies would be required to establish standards for assessing institutions in 12 areas, among them recruiting and admissions practices, program lengths and tuition, curriculum, and graduation rates.

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

All postsecondary institutions would be required to comply with the regulations in order for their students to receive federal aid.

Less Intrusive?

In a briefing session with reporters last month, Mr. Longanecker said he expected that much of the original criticism would subside as a result of the department's revisions. In addition, he suggested that some of the criticism resulted from misunderstandings.

He cited as an example higher education leaders' concern that the new SPRE's would lead to excessive federal demands for private records.

However, he said, an SPRE would only conduct a review if an institution set off one of a list of "triggers''--by posting a loan-default rate higher than 25 percent, for example--or if the department had reason to suspect fraud.

But Mr. Longanecker also acknowledged that institutions would still be expected to collect the data.

"My sense is that the department has heard the concerns of the higher-education community and they've made some positive movement in the direction we've urged,'' said David Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

"In particular, I think they've backed away from the intrusiveness having to do with curriculum and faculty in the accreditation portion,'' he said.

However, Mr. Warren said that he remains concerned about how the new regulations will affect colleges' tuition and fee policies.

John A. Curry, the president of Northeastern University, was somewhat less sanguine.

"These regulations are a step in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go,'' he said in a statement. "They continue to represent an unnecessary intrusion into the internal affairs of private colleges and universities.''

"They also duplicate a peer-review system that is effective and efficient at no cost to the taxpayers,'' he added.

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