Government

Congressional Report Blasts 'a Jungle of Red Tape' That Ensnares Colleges

February 13, 2015

The nation’s colleges are "enmeshed in a jungle of red tape," faced with federal regulations that are complicated, costly, and often confusing, according to a new report by a Congressional task force.

The report, produced by the American Council on Education, concludes that too many federal rules are "unnecessarily voluminous and too often ambiguous," with "unreasonable" compliance costs. It calls for regulatory relief for colleges and an improved process for developing new rules.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate education committee, said the report’s recommendations would guide his panel’s efforts to "weed the garden" in the forthcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and would "allow colleges to spend more of their time and money educating students, instead of filling out mountains of paperwork."

Mr. Alexander, who told The Chronicle that his "principal goal in higher education is to deregulate it," said his committee would hold a hearing on the report’s findings this month.

Senator Alexander, a former secretary of education and college president, created the task force in November 2013, along with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland; Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina; and Sen. Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado. They asked the panel to identify specific recommendations to consolidate or eliminate, to quantify the time and costs of complying with specific rules, and to provide recommendations for improved rule making.

The task force, which comprised 16 current and former college leaders and lobbyists, met four times, consulted with representatives of more than 60 institutions, and commissioned three policy papers that were financed by the Lumina Foundation. Its conclusion: "We need to be smarter about the regulation of higher education."

The report identifies several regulations that it says are ripe for reform, or removal. They include rules governing accreditation, campus crime, consumer information, distance education, and student aid. It also lays out "guiding principles" for developing and executing future rules.

Quantifying Costs

Nearly every federal agency imposes some regulatory burden on colleges, in areas as diverse as protecting human subjects of research and disposing of hazardous waste. While the government has no official estimate of how many regulations colleges face, the Catholic University of America, which tracks federal regulations, put the number at roughly 200 in 2008. The 2009 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act added dozens more rules and reporting requirements.

Colleges collectively spend 26.1 million hours each year completing forms required by the Department of Education alone, according to a recent report by the American Action Forum.

Most college officials will concede that most rules are worthwhile, and the task force's report, for its part, goes out of its way to acknowledge "the important role regulations play in the oversight of federal investments."

"Institutions of higher education must be careful stewards of federal funds, the federal government must ensure that public resources are not squandered, and students and taxpayers must be protected," it says.

Still, the report continues, "the costs associated with heavy handed and poorly designed regulations can be enormous."

Colleges have complained about the costs of complying with federal rules for years. But only a handful of colleges have tried to quantify their share of those costs, and no one has come up with a comprehensive price tag.

The report doesn’t attempt to do that, either, finding that "calculating the precise benefits and costs of regulation is both difficult and time consuming." Instead, it offers three examples of colleges that tried to estimate their own compliance costs—ranging from roughly $300,000 a year at Hartwick College, a liberal-arts institution with an enrollment of about 1,500 students, to $150-million a year at the much larger Vanderbilt University.

Hungry for Regulation

The task force’s report comes as the Education Department is finalizing rules for teacher-preparation programs and gearing up for a new round of rule-making sessions on President Obama’s "Pay as You Earn" student-loan-repayment program. Those regulations come on the heels of new rules governing accreditation, PLUS loans, debit cards, gainful employment, state authorization, and the credit hour—all of which were begun by the department without Congressional action.

The report takes several swipes at the department, noting its "increasing appetite for regulation" and raising concerns about "possible overreach." The document also accuses the agency of appearing "indifferent to the regulatory burden it imposes" on colleges, and argues that it grossly underestimates the number of hours colleges take to comply with its rules.

In a news release, Senator Burr went even further, blaming rising tuition on the department’s "never-ending addiction to regulating colleges and universities."

Denise Horn, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that it "is always interested in finding ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our regulations, as well as any reporting requirements for higher-education institutions, that are required as a consequence of the laws passed by Congress."

"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.

Regulation by the Numbers

The authors of the report cited a number of examples in which, it said, the federal government is covering colleges with red tape. Here are a few numbers called out by the task force:

945—Pages in the "gainful-employment rule," which aims to keep colleges from saddling students with unmanageable debt.

300—Pages contained in the nine surveys that make up the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or Ipeds.

300—Pages in the Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting (also known as the ‘"Clery Handbook"), which outlines reporting requirements on campus crime and safety.

270—"Dear Colleague" letters and electronic announcements released by the Education Department in 2012.

31—Pages in the department’s "At a Glance" summary of consumer disclosure requirements.

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at kelly.field@chronicle.com. Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.