'Emergency' Data Request Raises Suspicion

July 17, 2008

Stymied in its efforts to alter federal laws and regulations to make it easier for students to transfer academic credits from one institution to another, the U.S. Education Department plans an "emergency" survey of federal Pell Grant recipients that seems designed to build a case that changes are necessary. The request has agitated some higher education officials, who questioned both the premise and the purpose of the department's information expedition.

The department announced in a notice in Wednesday's Federal Register that it had sought emergency authority from the White House Office of Management and Budget to spend $375,000 to survey Pell recipients who transferred from one college to another from 2004-5 to 2005-6 about their experiences in trying to transfer academic credits between institutions. Participants, who would receive $50 each for answering the department's questions, will be asked about how many courses they sought to transfer from their original institution to the next, how many were accepted and rejected for transfer, and how much it cost them, and how much any "extra courses" cost them, in dollars and delayed graduation.

The purpose of the survey, department officials said in their request to the budget office for approval of the expenditure, was to gather information to better determine whether significant numbers of students are unable to transfer credits, and if so, why. "The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education found anecdotal, but frequently mentioned, evidence that transfer students experience barriers due to the denial of credits that they earned at their previous institution," department officials wrote in their petition to the budget office. "Such barriers both increase the cost of education and delay the entry of the students into the workforce. ED’s primary need now is for a descriptive study to determine what barriers exist and the extent to which they are a problem. Later, ED may consider a pilot project to work on removing some of the barriers."

The department said it had sought permission from the budget office to collect this information on an "emergency" basis -- which would mean that it could do so without going through the usual process of seeking public comment on the purpose and composition of the survey -- by today. Such an expedited approval is necessary, its Federal Register notice asserts, because Congress is about to pass legislation to renew the Higher Education Act that "will likely include new requirements for disclosing institutions' transfer of credit policies," and the department's ability to interpret the law and draft regulations to carry it out "would be best informed by the results of this study." The survey will also, department officials suggest, "assist in improving the Department's customer service functions for students who receive federal student aid for the 2009-10 school year."

Several college lobbyists were troubled by the department's surprise request on several fronts. They do not dispute the idea that transfer of credit is a problem for higher education, and they don't question the notion that it would be helpful for the federal government to have more information about the nature and extent of the problem. But that's about where their agreement with the Education Department ends.

First, they question the underlying purpose of the request. The transfer of credit issue has become enormously entangled in politics, because while the heavy majority of students who have trouble transferring their credits are believed to be at community colleges, the Spellings Commission and the department focused their proposed solutions to the "transfer of credit problem" on federal attempts to ensure that colleges do not automatically reject the academic credits of students from institutions that are nationally accredited, the vast majority of which are for-profit career colleges. (Officials of nationally accredited institutions argue that such rote rejection is unfairly discriminatory and destructive.)

That resulted in a major brouhaha on the Education Department panel that negotiated possible changes in federal rules governing accreditation last year and in Congressional deliberations over the Higher Education Act, and led Congress to propose blocking the department from promulgating regulations on the transfer of credit issue. The Higher Education Act legislation, as currently drafted, would merely require colleges to publish their policies on transfer of credit.

To those who opposed the department's effort to impose a federal solution on the transfer of credit issue, the department's latest tactic appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate the issue, and from a certain perspective, before the Bush administration leaves office. They noted, for instance, that the agency's request asks questions that are designed to tease out whether students in "career and technical education" courses are more likely to have their credits rejected.

"This is an example of trying to develop facts to support a policy that has been rebuked," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers. "It is an outright case of abuse."

Nassirian and others said that the department's attempt to skirt the standard public comment and approval process seemed designed to obscure the fact that the survey was designed to produce just enough information to let the department make the case it wants without shedding full light on the real issues.

The survey, for instance, asks students whether they had to take "extra courses" at their second institutions because the colleges refused to accept courses from the first, and if so, how much it cost them to do so. But it stops there, Nassirian said, instead of asking the "obvious follow-up question": "Do you think the courses were the same?" To the extent the content of the courses was meaningfully different, he said, it would have been perfectly legitimate for the receiving institution not to accept the credits.

"This is a highly tendentious, one-sided set of questions," Nassirian said. "With the right questions, you can get people to admit that toxic sludge is good for them."

Department officials said they were unable to respond to questions about the survey and the emergency basis of the request, because those responsible were en route to Chicago for a higher education summit at which Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and Under Secretary Sara Martinez Tucker are expected to try to summarize the department's progress in carrying out the work of the Spellings Commission as Spellings and her team prepare to leave office.

It is not clear whether the budget office has approved, or will approve, the department's request. But the White House office did express skepticism about one major thesis behind the department's information gathering quest. When department officials initially submitted a request for expedited approval to OMB, they portrayed it mostly as a method of assessing "customer satisfaction."

In a June 10 e-mail message to Education Department officials, a budget office aide rejected the idea that it was primarily designed to help the department gauge the quality of its work. "...[T]he results of this survey will be used to make policy decisions and analyze how successful different categories of students are in transferring course credit," the aide wrote. "This is the kind of collection that would benefit from the full ICR process, including public comment."

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