The U.S. Education Department is going back to the drawing board on some basic rules of higher education, including one concept that has been in place for 125 years.
The goal? Unleash innovation to better serve students.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has called for a "major shift" in how we provide higher education: "We have to give students a much wider venue of opportunity, starting in high school and middle school, to help guide them into a productive future."
Critics, though, call this move giving free rein to bad actors.
"Basically what these regulations allow is for these institutions that care about nothing but profit to come in and screw students in the name of innovation," says Amy Laitinen, who directs higher education policy at the left-leaning New America Foundation.
This week, the department officially announced that it is reopening "negotiated rule-making," a public comment and deliberation process, in order to rewrite a long list of rules meant to define the value of a college education. Here is an overview of the proposals and what changes they might bring, with links to our previous coverage:
Accrediting agencies: Who watches the watchdogs?
A college must be accredited in order to receive federal funds. But it is independent agencies, not the government, that give that approval. They are the meat inspectors of the higher education world.
When accreditors don't do their job, students can suffer. In 2016, the Obama administration withdrew recognition of one of these accreditation agencies, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which had certified both Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech, two enormous for-profit colleges that collapsed in scandal.
DeVos reinstated ACICS earlier this year, despite her department's own review finding that the agency failed to comply with 57 of 93 federal quality standards.
Now, her department proposes "simplifying the Department's process for recognition and review of accrediting agencies."
That could reduce compliance requirements for accreditors, according to Diane Auer Jones, the department's principal deputy undersecretary, as quoted in Inside Higher Ed.
Clare McCann, the deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, says this could amount to cutting off one leg of the three-legged stool that is college oversight: states, the federal government and accreditors.
And if that happens, she says, "the whole thing falls down."
Gainful employment: Who pays for degrees that don't pay off?
One of the biggest battlegrounds in higher ed policy during the previous administration was a little rule called gainful employment. This imposed limited sanctions on career-training programs that consistently produced graduates whose income was too low relative to their student debt.
The for-profit college industry opposed the rule, including in court. Consumer and student advocates hailed it.
A memorandum obtained by The New York Times last week suggests the department plans to scrap gainful employment and simply report statistics on debt burden and post-college earnings, as the federal College Scorecard currently does.
This week's announcement from the department doesn't include the words "gainful employment" but does propose creating "a single definition for purposes of measuring and reporting job placement rates." A single definition, that is, for career and noncareer programs alike.
Credit hours: The coin of the college realm
In 1893, Charles Eliot, president of Harvard, introduced what became the basic unit of a college education: the credit hour.
The Obama administration defined it thus: "One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester or trimester hour of credit."
College programs currently need to provide a certain number of credit hours of instruction in order to be accredited. The department wants to revise that definition, it says, to "promote greater access for students to high-quality, innovative programs."
This is a controversial point. On the one hand, competency-based education is a burgeoning movement both in K-12 and in higher education. Many argue that what matters is not bodies parked in seats but mastery of particular skills and content. That can be demonstrated through direct assessment, independent research, internships, online learning, group projects and in many other ways, over any period of time.
Even New America's Laitinen, a critic of the proposed rule changes, wrote a white paper titled, "Cracking the Credit Hour."
Linda Rawles, a self-described libertarian and regulatory lawyer who has represented for-profit colleges, says the Obama administration's move to define the credit hour angered groups that often find themselves on opposite sides of issues.
"Traditional schools, for example, were not happy," Rawles says. "They thought that was an infringement on their territory, on their ability to decide what good teaching was."
On the other hand, there is the quality question. Laitinen notes that if you nix the credit hour without replacing it, while simultaneously loosening oversight from both the feds and accreditors, you could end up with diploma mills.
Faculty contact: Where's my teacher?
A second standard related to competency-based or direct-assessment programs now under revision is "regular and substantive interaction" with faculty. Under current rules, distance education courses must have a certain amount of student-instructor contact; otherwise, they are mere correspondence courses. Western Governors University, a nonprofit online entity that has been hailed as a pioneer in competency-based education, was dinged by the Department of Education last year for falling afoul of this rule.
Granting relief to TEACH-ers
The department's notice this week also addresses issues with the TEACH Grant program, seeking to "improve outcomes" for recipients.
TEACH is a program that offers public-school teachers grants to pay for college or a master's degree in return for committing to teach a high-need subject for four years in a school that serves many low-income families.
In recent months, TEACH has been the subject of extensive NPR reporting that revealed widespread mismanagement, resulting in thousands of teachers having their grants unfairly converted to burdensome loans.
In June, 19 senators signed a letter to Secretary DeVos, citing NPR's reporting and saying, "It is urgent that these mistakes are fixed."
By including TEACH in negotiated rule-making, the Education Department is acknowledging that the grant program needs changing, though it's unclear whether this rewrite, assuming it happens, will address the program's flaws or make whole the teachers who have been saddled with debt.
Money for religious organizations
Here's the lone purple sock on this laundry list of changes. The department says that in light of a 2017 Supreme Court decision, it wants to revisit the rules that prohibit giving federal education funding to "faith-based entities." (In that case, the court found that a church-based preschool could not be denied state funds to refurbish its playground.)
But wait, you say — there are lots of religiously-aligned colleges that already get federal funding in the form of student aid and research grants — Catholic, Jewish, evangelical, to name a few. So what's new?
It's hard to say exactly, but the department's notice does call out a relatively small program called GEAR UP that provides money to public K-12 schools, not colleges, to help low-income students prepare for college.
And it mentions "faith-based entities," not just "schools." So the potential implication is that this rule change would pave the way to give federal education money to any religious organization.