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To the delight of many colleges and universities, Senator Lamar Alexander plans to approach the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act as a gardening activity.

The Tennessee Republican, who chairs the Senate's education committee, has said his top priority is to weed out burdensome regulations and requirements in the law, which governs federal financial aid.

On Thursday, a group of 16 college presidents and higher education leaders handed Alexander a blueprint to do just that. And their sweeping recommendations are more like clearing a forest than thinning a flower bed.

The report calls for the elimination of dozens of federal rules and requirements and the simplification of dozens more.

The task force was created in November 2013 by Senator Alexander and North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, also a Republican, and two Democrats, Senators Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Michael Bennet of Colorado. The group was led by Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos and University of Maryland System Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan. It received assistance from the American Council on Education, the umbrella lobbying organization for higher education in Washington, D.C.

The report makes the case, long argued by many college administrators, that higher education is drowning in voluminous regulations that are both confusing and costly.

The 144-page document criticizes the sheer volume of federal rules and guidelines, and it says that the U.S. Department of Education produces, on average, more than one new directive or clarification every working day of the year.

The report takes aim at Congressional mandates slipped into the Higher Education Act at various times from lawmakers in both parties. But the task force also criticizes the Education Department's rule making and blasts key parts of the Obama administration's regulatory agenda as overreaching and unnecessary.

The higher education law has morphed, the task force suggests, into a vehicle for accomplishing varied public policy goals that are unrelated to education. The report recommends, for instance, that Congress ditch the requirement that colleges must celebrate Constitution Day, provide students with voter registration paperwork and develop detailed strategies for cracking down on illegal file sharing.

It also calls on Congress to stop requiring that colleges report the foreign gifts they receive and disclose their policies on vaccinations. Any of those individual requirements in isolation might seem benign, the task force wrote, but they add up to a “jungle of red tape.”

The labyrinth of rules governing how colleges must calculate and distribute students’ federal grant and loan money has become overly complex, the task force says. In addition, it called out the department’s financial responsibility scores as outdated and not meaningful.

The report also slams the Obama administration’s “regulatory zeal” in recent years, saying the department has been too aggressive in creating complicated rules without regard to the burden they impose or whether they are supported by the text of the law. It singled out White House efforts to create new rules for for-profit colleges, to push states to more tightly regulate online programs and to issue guidance for how colleges must respond to sexual assault cases.

In addition, the report criticizes the Education Department for moving too slowly and with too heavy a hand in enforcing its regulations. It cites cases where department investigations of relatively minor infractions of financial aid rules dragged on for more than a decade.

Denise Horn, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement that the agency is interested in finding ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of regulations and reporting requirements.

“We are reviewing the report’s recommendations and look forward to working with Congress on behalf of the best interests of students and taxpayers,” she said.

The report also echoed a complaint from Alexander that the department has not followed a Congressional directive from 2008 to produce a master calendar of all of the regulations that colleges face.

Horn said that department was working on the compliance calendar and would publish it “in the near future.”

Campus Crime Rules

Some campus safety reporting rules also were a target for the task force.  

The report said Congress should narrow the geographic areas for which colleges are responsible for tallying crime statistics. The current rules, according to the report, require colleges to gather crime data for hotels or other places where students stay on institution-sponsored trips anywhere in the world.

The task force said colleges should be given more deference in deciding when to issue a “timely warning” about an ongoing campus crime or other threat to safety.

Campus safety advocates said they agreed that Congress could make some of those reporting requirements more streamlined. But they worried about maintaining some of the teeth of the current rules. 

“We don’t want to take away protections, but I do agree that regulations could be smarter and more effective,” said Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, a victims' advocacy group.

S. Daniel Carter, director of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation's 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, said there is “a lot of room for campus crime reports to be more consumer friendly.”

“Simplification is called for,” he added. “It’s just a question of making sure the important provision are not weakened.”

Wednesday’s report won quick praise from higher education groups. Both the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Association of American Universities issued statements supporting the findings.

Alexander, the chair of the Senate education committee, said in a statement that the report would guide his deregulatory efforts to “allow colleges to spend more of their time and money educating students, instead of filling out mountains of paperwork.”

He has scheduled a hearing on Feb. 24 to discuss the report’s findings. 

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