A decade-old policy change has allowed states to delegate their oversight authority regarding higher education to accrediting agencies, argues Student Defense, a legal advocacy nonprofit that assists students defrauded by colleges, in a new report.
States are one-third of the so-called triad, along with the federal government and accrediting agencies, that is responsible for overseeing colleges and universities. Under a 2010 change in the Education Department’s state authorization regulations and other subsequent policy guidance, states can delegate or eliminate their oversight authority if they have a process to review and act on complaints regarding colleges and universities. That process can include forwarding all complaints to an accrediting agency, per the report.
For example, California exempts private colleges and universities from consumer protection laws if the institutions are “established, operated, and governed” by a federal, state or local entity or accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, among other criteria.
The department’s regulations and guidance have made the triad a “two-legged stool,” said Student Defense. It’s calling for the department to eliminate the ability of states to exempt institutions from state laws if they are accredited or have been in operation for more than 20 years.
“The Department of Education has essentially blessed a universe in which states can hand-off or eliminate oversight of institutions,” the report says. “Students with valid concerns about institutional misconduct—which may be in violation of their state’s higher education laws—could be left without recourse because the school is not subject to the state’s higher education laws.”
“This loophole makes it far too easy for states to wash their hands of their oversight responsibility,” said Dan Zibel, vice president and chief counsel of Student Defense, in a statement. “State laws are often students’ best defense against predatory behavior, but the federal government can’t enforce them, and we’ve seen repeatedly that accreditors and the Department of Education are not a sufficient check on bad behavior. It’s time for the Department to revisit its rules.”