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E.D. Softens Some Higher-Education Accountability Rules

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Washington

In the face of criticism from the higher-education community, the Education Department has scaled back some of the Clinton Administration's more controversial proposals for tightening federal oversight of postsecondary education.

The "program integrity'' regulations, published in final form late last month, form the heart of the Administration's efforts to increase accountability in federal student-aid programs that have been cited repeatedly for fraud and abuse.

A preliminary version of the regulations, published Jan. 17, had generated intense criticism from higher-education leaders, who charged that they were unduly burdensome and threatened the independence of colleges and universities.

As stipulated in the Higher Education Amendments of 1992, the regulations create a "program-integrity triad'' that strengthens the responsibilities of accrediting agencies, revamps the Education Department's role in determining institutions' eligibility for aid programs, and establishes new state-level oversight bodies called State Postsecondary Review Entities, or SPRE's.

Postsecondary institutions must comply with the regulations in order for their students to receive federal grants and loans.

Among the changes in the regulations:

  • The final rules clarify that SPRE's will not undertake comprehensive reviews of all institutions. Under the new rules, an institution will be considered for review only if it activates one of several "triggers,'' such as having consistently high student-loan-default rates.

A provision was also added that allows an institution 30 days to challenge a referral for review if its officials believe the referral was based on inaccurate information.

  • Standards that SPRE's are required to develop for determining whether a school offers a "reasonable rate of return'' for students--taking into consideration the cost of a program and what a graduate can expect to earn after completing training--will now apply only to nondegree vocational programs.
  • Accrediting agencies are required to provide information to federal officials only on institutions whose eligibility or compliance has come into question, rather than being required to provide any information not defined as confidential.
  • A provision that would have required accrediting agencies to make unannounced, comprehensive site visits to all vocational programs was changed to allow an agency to make a less exhaustive visit in order to assess whether further investigation is necessary.

Reaction Muted

The regulations were published in the April 29 Federal Register, just in time to meet the May 1 deadline set in the 1992 H.E.A. reauthorization. Most of the rules are to take effect on July 1.

At a briefing for reporters, David A. Longanecker, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said he was confident the regulations will give the Education Department the capacity "to help those institutions that are at the margin to get better, and to get those that are below the margin out of the [aid] program.''

Initial reaction from higher-education groups was tepid. Officials said they needed time to review the lengthy and complex regulations.

"On a preliminary look there are some improvements,'' said David Warren, the president of the National Association of Independent College and Universities. "But there are still some major concerns about [not having] the opportunity to appeal to the Secretary if an institution is designated to lose its federal financial-aid funding.''

"From what we've seen of them, it appears the department has gone at least part way in answering the concerns expressed by the higher-education community,'' said David Merkowitz, a spokesman for the American Council on Education. "We really have to do a much more detailed analysis to see exactly how far they have gone and what our remaining concerns are.''

The draft version of the regulations generated an huge response from the higher-education community. During the 55-day comment period, the department received about 1,500 comments on the SPRE regulations, 1,800 on the accreditation rules, and 500 on the section covering Education Department certification of institutional eligibility.

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