The Trump administration plans to release a draft of proposals to further deregulate higher education on Monday. The Education Department reportedly intends to reduce the responsibilities of accreditors for colleges and universities — effectively gutting consumer protections for college students.
The department is taking aim at protections for students receiving distance education, the credit hour standard, and oversight of faculty communication with students.
Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said the proposals may seem insignificant and technical, but the targeted regulations are “the building blocks for consumer protection” in higher education. She said the department is reducing oversight of accrediting agencies and transparency requirements of institutions. (Editor’s note: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent newsroom housed at the Center for American Progress.)
“The department is saying this is all about innovation. What it’s doing is it’s making it very easy for non-accredited, unvetted institutional providers to access federal student aid money. It’s making it very easy to become an accreditor with no experience,” Flores said.
The department’s proposals will go through negotiated rulemaking beginning on January 14. During this time, Congress is preparing for conversations over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which will touch on many of the issues the department’s proposals focus on. Flores said it seemed odd for the department to push these sweeping changes now, when Congress is set to consider these same issues in public hearings.
One of the biggest changes that the department proposed was to get rid of the prohibition on colleges that receive federal funds outsourcing more than 50 percent of their programs to non-accredited providers. Flores said this would be like Purdue University giving all of its operations for a program to a for-profit college chain.
“That means students could potentially be buying something and getting something else entirely and it’s not really clear who is providing the education,” she said. “They don’t really have any restrictions or oversight on these kinds of agreements so a school could outsource its programs to a coding boot camp that the federal government, states, and accreditors have zero oversight of or accountability for. It’s kind of like a shell game.”
It would also eliminate the Obama-era credit-hour definition and would let colleges and accreditors decide on how to evaluate a student’s progress. That means, for example, that schools can inflate credit hours and charge students significantly more money, something Flores said has happened in the past.
There would also be a rewrite of the “regular and substantive interaction,” which requires distance programs, like online learning, to ensure there is “regular and substantive” instructor and student interaction.
“When you eliminate that, it basically means that institutions can provide online textbooks, jack up charges, and students are getting a low quality option for more money,” Flores said.
The rulemaking would also drop some restrictions on religious colleges. This means accreditors can’t do anything about colleges that don’t meet accreditation standards as long as it is a “result of an institution’s adherence to its religious mission in any of its policies and practices,” according to Politico.
Many of the targeted regulations were created around the time of the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and were focused on ensuring for-profit colleges didn’t commit abuses, Flores added. President George H.W. Bush said the law would “crack down on sham schools that have defrauded students and the American taxpayer.”
Since Betsy DeVos took control of the Education Department, the department has taken many steps to deregulate higher education, particularly in ways that benefit for-profit colleges and harm students defrauded by for-profit colleges. The department dismantled a team investigating for-profit colleges. It moved to cancel the gainful employment rule, which restricted educational companies’ access to student loan dollars if they didn’t prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation, as well as the borrower defense to repayment rule, which created a process for students to seek cancellation of loans if their schools defrauded them. The department announced for-profit colleges no longer have to follow requirements to post median earnings on websites and has introduced proposed rules to replace Obama-era regulation of for-profit colleges.
There is a possibility, however, that the department’s most recent proposals will falter as some of their previous efforts to deregulate higher education have. In September of 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Randolph Moss ruled that DeVos’ actions to stall protections for defrauded students were illegal. Moss said her decision to move forward without a rulemaking process was “procedurally invalid” and “arbitrary and capricious.”
DeVos did not have better luck in the courts when it came to creating a new system for defrauded students to receive relief. In October of 2018, U.S. District Judge Sallie Kim certified that more than 100,000 students defrauded by Corinthian Colleges make up a class to bring a lawsuit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after the department created a new tiered system that would prevent some defrauded students from receiving full loan forgiveness. The department also missed an important deadline to overhaul rules regarding for-profit colleges, including the gainful employment rule.
“I think what we’ve learned from borrower defense and gainful employment is that this department does not exactly have a great track record for doing these things successfully,” Flores said. “They’re riddled with errors and problems so I would kind of expect that to be the same here.
Flores added, “They aren’t really including states here at the negotiating table and a lot of these regulations impact state laws. It’s kind of unprecedented in recent regulatory history for the department not to have a seat for states or attorneys general or consumer advocates.”