Too Many Rules

After surveying more than 2,000 higher education officials about which federal regulations they find too burdensome, a federal panel now has its answer: Almost all of them.

The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance on Wednesday released the preliminary findings of its Higher Education Regulations Study, which asked college officials from all sectors of higher education about which of 15 regulations they would change or eliminate.

The result was akin to a primal scream.

Eighty-six percent of officials found regulations under the Higher Education Act burdensome or overly burdensome. Of the 15 regulations the panel asked about, a majority of respondents said 14 were "burdensome" or "very burdensome," and cited 13 whose elimination would yield significant savings for colleges.

The 2008 renewal of the Higher Education Act charged the committee with reviewing the state of higher education regulation to find rules that are redundant, unnecessary, inconsistent or “overly burdensome.” The committee will review the responses, which were collected through two panel discussions and an online survey, at a public hearing Friday, and deliver a final report to Congress by the end of the year.

Complaints about federal regulations are hardly new. This year especially, officials have said they are overwhelmed by the changes the Education Department has implemented or is considering. The 15 regulations the survey asked about were named by respondents as some of the most troublesome. And, as the committee noted in its preliminary report, “It is not surprising to receive such a large percentage of responses judging the HEA regulations as overly burdensome when the respondents targeted were senior executives and office administrators of higher education institutions bound by those regulations.”

But it went on to say that the degree of agreement between the two groups surveyed — “senior  executives” such as presidents and provosts, and the office administrators who must deal with the regulations daily — indicates the “strength of perceptions” of the regulations. (Left unsaid was that the perception is far from favorable.)

The study dealt with several questions: how burdensome the current regulations are; whether the rules can be changed without affecting program integrity, access or student success; whether doing so would save money; whether the overall regulation system is working; and what the focus of any reform efforts should be.

Over all, regulations from the Higher Education Act were judged to be more burdensome than other federal regulations or those from states and nongovernmental agencies. A majority said regulations from the law have at least some overlap with state and other federal rules.

Office administrators said that requirements to disclose information about “campus crime, enrollments, fire safety, graduation rates, music downloading, placement rates and textbook information,” among others, were among the most burdensome, since agencies often require similar information but differ on timelines (some ask for academic year information, others for calendar year, for example). Ninety-six percent said those requirements could be eliminated or modified, and 90 percent said they were too burdensome.

Respondents also criticized the scope of such disclosures, saying that the requirements lead to an overwhelming amount of information and need to be overhauled.

Other regulations that came in for criticism are those governing the return of financial aid money to the government if students withdraw; the requirement that borrowers sign a separate authorization to apply student loan money to campus health center fees or other “non-allowable charges”; and the regulations on awarding TEACH Grants, which respondents said were inconsistent and required too much counseling and research.

In at least one glimmer of good news, the regulations deemed most difficult — the rules governing whether students are eligible for two Pell Grants in one year, which 91 percent of respondents said were burdensome — was already made obsolete when the “year-round Pell” program was eliminated earlier this year.

The office administrators who responded to the survey recommended eliminating or modifying all 15 of the regulations in question. Changing requirements for entrance counseling had the least support, with 47 percent saying the regulation could be left as it is now. In general, they said they believed most of the regulations could be overhauled without jeopardizing program integrity or leading to fraud or abuse.

Respondents also criticized the “one size fits all” approach to regulation: 83 percent of executives and 73 percent of office administrators said they supported sector-specific regulations, and 82 percent and 69 percent, respectively, said they supported performance-based regulations. Less than 15 percent of each group favored maintaining the current approach.

In its conclusion, the report introduced a note of skepticism: “The survey did not determine that regulations are, in fact, burdensome or need to be modified,” the committee wrote. “Rather, the survey revealed perceptions of burden within the higher education community regarding these factors.”

In other words: The rules might not actually be burdensome — you might just think they are.


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