With Deregulatory Slant, A Higher Ed Act Push

As colleges press their case for reducing federal requirements, a top Republican says he's committed to finishing a rewrite of the Higher Education Act this year.

February 25, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Senator Lamar Alexander on Tuesday committed to finishing a rewrite of the Higher Education Act by the end of this year as he backed a plan written by colleges and universities to roll back federal requirements on higher education.  

“We’ll get it done this year,” Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, told reporters.

He said he planned to hold a round of hearings in April, draft a version of the bill by summer, and then have a vote on the Senate floor after the August recess.

A key priority for Alexander in renewing the massive law that governs colleges and universities is reducing federal red tape in higher education that “should be an embarrassment to all of us in the federal government.”

Alexander said that he would use as a guide for cutting down on regulations a report prepared by 16 higher education leaders and the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization that represents colleges and universities in Washington.

The report, which was published last week, was commissioned by Alexander and Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, both Republicans, as well as Democratic Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

Mikulski said at a hearing Tuesday that the report’s recommendations were a “road map” for improving quality and innovation in higher education.

She said she wanted to make sure the federal student aid system “does lead to jobs -- but not necessarily more jobs at the Department of Education” for people who write regulations.

But some Democrats as well as consumer and student groups have pushed back against the report, saying its recommendations would undermine key protections for students.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said that colleges must be run effectively and efficiently but worried about removing important rules to hold institutions accountable.

“It would be a mistake to roll back important protections for faculty, students and families,” she said.

Murray singled out federal regulations in the Clery Act and Title IX that govern sexual assault on college campuses.

“We shouldn’t move in the wrong direction by unraveling these core protections that provide students with a safe learning environment,” she said.

The Institute for College Access and Success and a coalition of 13 other advocacy groups and unions echoed those concerns in a statement Monday.

“It should surprise no one that regulated entities want less regulation and fewer strings attached to the taxpayer funds they receive,” the groups wrote. “While there are some recommendations in the report with which we agree, the report is by no means a consensus opinion among all higher education stakeholders."

Nicholas Zeppos, president of Vanderbilt University, said at the hearing Tuesday that an internal study of his institution showed that federal red tape relating to higher education cost the university $14 million annually. 

That prompted Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democrat, to express concern about providing regulatory relief without any commitment by colleges to pass along those savings to students.

She asked Zeppos Tuesday whether he would be willing to commit to reducing Vanderbilt’s tuition by $1,100 -- the university's estimated compliance cost per student -- if colleges and universities won the regulatory relief they are seeking.

Zeppos said that any savings from reduced regulations would be used by different universities in different ways. He said at Vanderbilt, he would channel any savings into need-based aid, internship programs and research.

Warren said that she wanted to see the federal government go further than it currently does in holding colleges accountable for the tuition they charge.

“At some point we’ve got to use our federal leverage” of $160 billion each year in higher education spending, she said.

Alexander, meanwhile, called the report on reducing higher education regulations “a blueprint for the future.”

“It will be a basis for much of what we do in the reauthorization” of the Higher Education Act, he said. 

Alexander told reporters Tuesday that there is bipartisan support for eliminating or reducing many of the regulations that he and the report are targeting. 

“Many of these recommendations are really neutral in their political effect,” he said. “They’re not the result of any partisan dispute; they’re just the result of inertia.”

Alexander said he was “optimistic” that he could work with the White House on rewriting the Higher Education Act. He said he spoke about it with Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Friday. 

“He and the president have been very good about this so far,” Alexander said. “We have some differences -- like gainful employment, a few other things -- but not as many in higher education.”

Repealing Obama Higher Ed Regulations

But, at the same time, Republicans in Congress -- as well as the American Council on Education -- are separately making a push to repeal or block nearly every major item that President Obama has had on his regulatory agenda for higher education for the past six years.

Burr, the North Carolina Republican, announced at the hearing that he would introduce legislation to outlaw a handful of controversial Department of Education regulations on colleges and universities.

His effort mirrors a bill introduced last week by North Carolina's Virginia Foxx, the Republican representative who oversees higher ed on the House education committee.

The measure would stop the Obama administration’s regulations (or proposed rules) governing for-profit colleges, teacher preparation programs, the definition of a credit hour and state oversight of colleges that operate across state lines. It would also prohibit the administration from developing its college ratings system.

Molly Corbett Broad, the president of the American Council on Education, said in a letter Monday that her group backed the legislation, including the repeal of gainful employment rules governing for-profit and vocational programs that many nonprofit colleges support.

“While we share many of the department’s stated goals, and have made repeated efforts to inform and improve their regulatory approaches, the agency has been unable or unwilling to address our concerns,” she wrote. “Given their insistence on moving forward with these flawed approaches, congressional action is warranted.”

House Republicans on the education committee have previously accused the Obama administration’s executive actions on higher education of obstructing legislative progress on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Alexander did not say Tuesday that he had plans to work directly with the House on rewriting that law. He said his reauthorization effort in the Senate would be bipartisan and would move forward on a “parallel track” to the House’s work.


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