DeVos Seeks To Rewrite The Rules On Higher Ed The U.S. Education Department is going back to the drawing board on some basic rules of higher education.

DeVos Seeks To Rewrite The Rules On Higher Ed

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NOEL KING, HOST:

This week, the U.S. Department of Education announced it's going back to the drawing board on some basic quality control rules for higher education. That includes one concept that's been in place for 125 years. The Department of Education says the aim is innovation. But critics fear these changes will give free rein to bad actors. I'm here now with Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed Team. Hi, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: OK, so what is the change?

KAMENETZ: So the department is getting the ball rolling on a process called negotiated regulation - or neg reg (ph) for short. Basically over 2019, they'll be rewriting a really long, wonky list of rules that are actually super important because they define in basic terms what a college education is. And they do that for the purpose of trying to shield students from potentially going to very low-quality programs.

KING: Oh, that's interesting. So what are some examples? What's on the list?

KAMENETZ: So there are these folks called accreditors. They are the independent meat inspectors of the higher ed world. So if we think of, like, higher ed oversight, it's like a three-legged stool. There are states, the federal government, and there are these accreditors. And they want to kind of loosen the rules - make it easier for accreditors to become accreditors. And to get a sense of what's at stake here, the Obama administration had pulled the plug on one of these accreditors that had overseen not one but two giant for-profit colleges that collapsed in scandal. And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, earlier this year, reinstated that accreditor. So this is a sign of kind of getting softer on the watchdog.

KING: OK, so that's really interesting. I imagine there will be people who will say, huh, this seems like it's about helping for-profit colleges.

KAMENETZ: Well, there's a lot of indicators that that might be true. On the other hand, some of the moves in this neg reg process have been called for by educational innovators across the board. For example, they're looking at the credit hour. The credit hour has been the basic unit of higher education since at least 1893. So right now, if you want to charge students tuition and have them take out federal loans, you have to supply a certain number of hours of instruction for a certain number of weeks. And, you know, in the age of the Internet, in the age of a lot of adult learners, people are saying that's nonsense. You should certify learning not just time.

KING: That actually sounds very rational. So I guess there is an argument here that this could increase innovation - move things into the present day.

KAMENETZ: Yes. And some people like that idea. On the other hand, you know, student advocates are saying it's great to let programs experiment. But you can't take your hands off the wheel. If you don't use accreditors or other kinds of regulation to hold colleges accountable for outcomes even if you don't specify how they get there, there's a lot of room for scams.

KING: All right, so we've talked about what this means for for-profit colleges. Who else is watching this announcement?

KAMENETZ: It's interesting, Noel. There's something buried in here that's kind of like a gift to Trump's evangelical base. This is in the wake of a Supreme Court case last year that kind of paved the way to weaken a little bit the separation between church and state when it comes to education funding. And this announcement calls out that case, and then it mentions this small grant program that is intended to help low-income kids prepare for college. And it says, we're going to look at directing that money not to public school districts but to, quote, faith-based entities.

KING: Interesting. NPR's Anya Kamenetz - thanks for keeping an eye on this for us, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSHY'S "THERE'S A LIGHT")

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