WASHINGTON -- A bill to overturn two of the Education Department’s controversial “program integrity” rules appears headed for success in the House of Representatives today, but the Obama administration opposes the measure and how much Democratic support it will attract is unclear.
The bill, H.R. 2117, would repeal the federal definition of a credit hour and end the federal requirement that colleges comply with state authorization laws in every state in which they operate. Although the program integrity rules were intended to rein in for-profit colleges, the credit-hour definition and the state authorization requirement apply across sectors. Many public and private nonprofit colleges have opposed the two regulations in the bill's sights, saying the state authorization requirement is overly burdensome and expensive, and that the federal definition of a credit hour opens the door to other federal involvement in academic matters.
The Obama administration argues that the regulations are needed to protect students and the federal financial aid programs. In a statement Thursday, the White House said it “strongly opposed” the bill, but did not threaten a presidential veto should it attract enough votes in the House and Senate to become law (as such Statements of Administration of Policy sometimes do).
"These regulations are necessary to prevent the inflation of the academic credits attributed to postsecondary education courses that could result in the over-awarding of federal student aid, and for the efficient administration of the student financial aid programs,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in the statement. “Congress should not prevent the Secretary of Education from responsibly administering these programs and ensuring that consumers and taxpayers are protected from fraud, waste, and abuse.”
The bill has led to some strange bedfellows: for-profit colleges, nonprofit and public colleges and Republican lawmakers all support it. The American Council on Education sent letters signed by 98 higher education associations and accreditors to members of Congress on Monday, urging them to support the bill.
“We see no justification for two regulations that so fundamentally alter the relationships among the federal government, states, accreditors and institutions,” Molly Corbett Broad, the council’s president, wrote, after saying that the groups generally support the intent of the program integrity regulations. “We believe the outcome of this unprecedented regulatory overreach will be inappropriate federal interference in campus-based decisions in which the faculty play a central role.”
One amendment to the bill would aim to change the distinction between “clock hour” and “credit hour” programs, which has concerned community colleges since the rule was finalized. Students qualify for less federal financial aid when a program is measured in clock hours: programs that typically do so include training for truck drivers, pilots, cosmetologists and other occupations where licensing requires students to log hours. Degree programs typically measure in credit hours.
But the program integrity rules would consider many programs previously measured in credit hours to be measured in clock hours instead. An amendment from Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and chairwoman of the House higher education subcommittee, would repeal the regulations that apply to clock hour programs as well.
The leading Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training testified at a Rules Committee hearing Monday, arguing that the bill would undermine the Education Department’s ability to oversee financial aid programs.
“Without a common definition of a credit hour, we will not know what we are paying for,” said Representative Rubén Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat. A statement from Democrats on the education committee reiterated the opposition to the bill.
Still, the bill gained bipartisan support in committee in July: five of the committee’s 17 Democrats voted in favor of the repeal, and all are expected to vote in favor again when the full House considers the bill.
Four amendments from Democrats will also be considered, including two that would keep some portions of the bill while doing away with others: one would eliminate the repeal of the credit-hour definition (but keep the repeal of state authorization), and the other would require states to establish a process for dealing with students’ complaints about online colleges, even if the state authorization provision is repealed. Another would narrow the repeal’s focus: colleges would have to obtain state authorization if their graduation rates or cohort default rates were higher than the national average for the sector, or if their completion rate was below the national average. A fourth amendment would require the Education Department to write new regulations if the credit hour and authorization measures were repealed.
However, even if the state authorization requirement is overturned, many states still have laws in place that require colleges to gain permission to operate within their borders, and those laws will remain in place. Some have warned that, regardless of the outcome for the federal regulations, states will be more aware of their own laws about online colleges and more likely to enforce them.
A vote on the measure is expected this afternoon.
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