Lamar Alexander: Who’s Afraid of Big, Bad Education Regulations

Tomorrow Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, will have hearings to propose cutting federal regulations on higher education as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. We should probably view this hearing with great skepticism.

Last week the HELP committee also released a report “detailing ways Congress and the Department of Education could streamline and reduce federal regulations for America’s 6,000 colleges and universities, while protecting students and taxpayers.” Access the report here.

This is a curious report, and appears to have been written only by the colleges and universities, and their associations, with no input from consumer protection or students.

Ah, yes, those burdensome regulations. This is a common line from conservatives and it sounds valid. There is, after all, a fair amount of reporting institutions have to do now, mostly in the form of assuring compliance with federal laws (particularly safety), but in this case, any concern with more “burdensome regulations” is sort of ridiculous.

Under the current system American colleges and universities receive vast federal money from the federal government, with pretty limited regulations, as far as what the money actually buys. As Paul Glastris explained late last year:

Washington gives institutions of higher learning about $150 billion a year in the form of student aid, research grants, and various tax breaks. In return, those institutions promise the federal government … nothing. Schools are under no obligation to demonstrate that they’ve spent that money effectively—by, say, keeping prices down, or increasing their graduation rates, or helping more lower-income students get degrees, or showing that any of their students have learned a damn thing. The money just flows, year after year, in ever-greater amounts.

Recently, President Barack Obama proposed a system of college ratings, which would measure student outcomes, in addition to other things, and give colleges ratings based on how well they perform. Eventually, colleges could be rewarded or punished with federal money based on how well they did keeping college affordable and graduating students.

Colleges got nervous. It’s sort of a nice system they’ve got in place there. As Louisiana State University President King Alexander put it, when it comes to funding from Washington, private universities prefer the feds just “put the money on a tree stump and leave.”

Lamar Alexander was there to help. The colleges and institutions involved in advising HELP include such behemoths as University of Maryland System, Vanderbilt University, the American Council on Education. They want make sure to really cut down all of those nasty regulations. According to this piece at Inside Higher Ed:

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 collegesmust 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.”

All of this sort of sounds legitimate, but the major aim of the report seems to be the Obama administration and its “regulatory zeal.” The major regulatory reform would be, of course, that damn college rating system.

Now, it’s not entirely ridiculous to suggest that monitoring of vast taxpayer money in the United States’ higher education system is precisely the sort of thing that should have a little regulatory zeal attached to it, but I suppose from the colleges’ perspective, any more regulation is a little annoying.

Except that the college rating system really won’t impose any more regulations on colleges at all. As Laura Colarusso and Jon Marcus explained in this publication last year, if the universities want relief from “burdensome paperwork” they can just agree to a student unit record system and let the feds do all the work. They can just farm the whole thing out to the federal government.

No, their objection isn’t to the fact that they’ll have to do more reporting. They won’t. Their objection is just because if they have to report on their actual performance, many of them won’t do very well. And then students won’t come there. And, oddly more importantly, they’ll lose access to all this federal money they’ve grown used to.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer