Possible Setback for Program Integrity Rules

A bipartisan group of legislators votes to advance a bill that would block rules governing state authorization and the definition of a credit hour.
June 16, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A bill that would repeal two Education Department program integrity rules -- the federal definition of a credit hour and the requirement that colleges and universities be authorized in every state in which they operate -- is now headed for a vote by the full House of Representatives.

The measure, H.R. 2117, the “Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act," is aimed at overturning some of the program integrity rules announced in October, which the House Republicans who sponsored the bill said they saw as a significant federal overreach into higher education administrative and curricular matters. The rules go into effect July 1.

When the program integrity rules were announced, the Education Department emphasized that they were aimed primarily at for-profit colleges and universities. But nonprofit institutions joined in criticizing the credit hour definition, saying it could interfere with a college’s right to determine its own curriculum. The rule would define a credit hour as an hour of lecture and two hours' work outside class. Colleges could determine their own equivalent for other academic activities like internships or laboratory work, and for academic rather than federal purposes. At a meeting last week of the federal advisory committee on accreditation, accreditors and committee members said verifying that colleges comply with the rule could take thousands of hours of employees’ and accreditors’ time.

The state authorization requirement, which would require colleges that operate online or distance learning programs to get permission from every state in which they operate, was similarly criticized as burdensome. Since students could move while enrolled, colleges would in effect need permission from all 50 states, and some of the states are still developing their rules for authorization.

After the Committee on Education and the Workforce rejected several amendments largely along party lines, the final bill was passed by a vote of 27 in favor to 11 against, with five Democrats joining all of the committee’s Republican members in backing it.

Several higher education lobbying groups and associations joined the American Council on Education in writing a letter urging the House committee, as well as its Senate counterpart, to block the regulations. (No Senate bill has been introduced so far.) The signers include several associations representing different sectors of higher education, the Association of American Universities and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities among them. Accrediting agencies signed the letter, which had more than 70 supporting organizations, as well.

“Given the almost total lack of evidence of a problem in either the credit hour or state authorization context, we see no basis for issuing two regulations that so fundamentally change the relationships among the federal government, states, accreditors and institutions,” the American Council on Education's president, Molly Corbett Broad, wrote in the letter, adding that some of the other program integrity rules were a positive development.

The alliance between the groups and the House Republicans was an unusual one -- on many issues, including student financial aid and federal research expenditures, higher ed associations tend to line up with the Democratic side of the aisle in pushing for more spending. But it proved effective, with Democratic legislators who voted in favor of the bill echoing the higher education groups’ concern in their comments. The pairing could prove particularly potent in the Senate, where Democrats have only a small majority.

The unusual nature of the alliance was most evident when Rep. Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who introduced the bill, took on Democratic arguments that the regulations were necessary to make sure federal money was being properly used.

If that was the concern, perhaps Congress should stop providing the money to colleges and universities at all, said Foxx, describing the process as “confiscating” taxpayers’ money, wasting some of it on bureaucracy and “giving some of it to people who choose to go to college,” a comment that Rep. Tim Bishop, a Democrat from New York, described as “deeply offensive.”

“I’m fairly offended that the process by which we help needy students get their slice of the American dream is characterized as a confiscatory practice,” Bishop said.

Many Democrats on the committee said the Education Department’s measures were intended to promote accountability at colleges and universities, which together receive tens of billions each year when students enroll with federal financial aid. Republicans argued that the regulations were unnecessary because the regulatory role should be filled by states or institutions themselves.

Democrats argued especially strongly in favor of one provision, a part of the state authorization regulation that would require states to have a process in place to review and deal with student complaints. “If you’re going to repeal this protection, something must take its place,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the committee.

Several Democratic amendments, including one that would have allowed the repeal to take effect only if Congress voted to keep the maximum Pell Grant at $5,550, were defeated or ruled out of order.

A vote on the bill by the full House of Representatives has not been scheduled.


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