Speakers at House Hearing Assail Regulatory Burden on Colleges

March 01, 2011

Is overregulation undermining the nation's education system? Colleges certainly think so, and Congressional Republicans say they want to find out.

On Tuesday the House education committee held the first in what it says will be a series of hearings on the regulatory burden on colleges and schools.

In an opening statement, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the panel's chairman, promised to root out rules that "hinder job creation and economic growth."

"We will leave no stone unturned as we look to strengthen education and the work force," he pledged.

Much of the hearing focused on education mandates imposed on elementary and secondary schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. But lawmakers also heard from Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John's College, in Maryland, about the "massive" federal regulation of higher education. He urged Congress to apply its "pay as you go" budget rules to regulation, eliminating old requirements as new ones are added.

"There are things we are measuring because they can be measured, not because they are good, and those are the most dangerous," he said.

Mr. Nelson drew sympathy from Mr. Kline, who said he knew regulations were "a real burden" on colleges. "We want to get at that," he added.

3,000 Recommendations

Tuesday's hearing came less than two months after President Obama issued an executive order directing federal agencies to drop rules that are outdated, ineffective, or overly burdensome.

But it's unclear if anything will result from this latest round of regulatory review. Colleges have been complaining about overregulation for years, but the rules have continued to multiply, and efforts to streamline them have fallen flat.

A decade ago, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, who was then chairman of the education committee, asked colleges to identify regulations that they would like to see altered or eliminated in the process, then pending, of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Colleges submitted more than 3,000 recommendations to the committee, but the changes never made it into law. In the end, Congress enacted a reauthorization bill that critics say doubled colleges' reporting burden.

This past fall, the Education Department made final a package of "program integrity" rules aimed at protecting taxpayer dollars from fraud and abuse. The package created dozens of new reporting requirements for colleges and universities. Mr. Kline alluded to those rules in his opening remarks on Tuesday, saying they were "forcing schools to redirect critical funds to pay the inevitable fines or hire outside counsel to help make sense of the new regulations."

Somewhat surprisingly, none of the lawmakers or witnesses brought up the Education Department's proposed "gainful employment" rule, which would cut off federal student aid to programs whose graduates have high debt-to-income ratios and low loan-repayment rates. The controversial rule has been the subject of intensive lobbying in Washington, with student and consumer groups pushing the plan and for-profit colleges vigorously opposing it.