Friday, June 17, 2011

A Rare Moment of Sanity in Congress

Recently, the Federal Education Department promulgated new rules -- ostensibly motivated by concerns about abuses in the for-profit sector of higher ed -- requiring colleges that offer distance education programs to be licensed in any state in which they have students, or risk losing Title IV money. It also promulgated an attempted standard definition of a “credit hour.”

Both of these rules were terribly wrongheaded and counterproductive. I was surprised and pleased to read yesterday that the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed H.R. 2117, which would block both regulations and would prevent any federal standardization of the credit hour.

As regular readers know, I’m no fan of the credit hour. In the age of distance education, project-based education, and all manner of self-directed study, tying funding to an early twentieth century construct based on butts in seats makes no sense. A strict reading of the regulation as promulgated is that it would make productivity increases illegal. A given amount of student achievement is supposed to take x amount of time; if you manage to get it done in less, you’re presumed to be somehow cheating. It may be possible to come up with a more effective way to prevent innovation, but it would take real effort. Given that tuition increases are a public concern, this is exactly wrong.

The distance education licensing requirement wasn’t as awful conceptually, but it threatened ridiculous deadweight costs. In a recent statewide meeting with my counterparts at other campuses, we spent about an hour trying to figure out how to comply with the mandate. As the regulation reads, if a school in Delaware gets a single online student from California, then it has to undergo California’s licensing process.

Under that scheme, states have every incentive for de facto protectionism. They wouldn’t have to call it that, of course; they could just enact byzantine licensing requirements with high fees, and then take their sweet, sweet time processing applications. Since the regulation did not allow for interstate reciprocity -- astounding, and probably unconstitutional, but true -- every single college would have to approach the other 49 states one at a time. This, in the name of what, exactly?

Ironically enough, the institutions most capable of handling the new regs were actually the larger for-profits, since they’re already interstate anyway. The University of Phoenix could comply without breaking a sweat, but the typical community college couldn’t. If rogue for-profits are the problem, this is hardly the solution.

If they wanted to make themselves truly useful, the feds could stop mucking around in issues they obviously don’t understand, and instead tie state-level eligibility for Title IV to maintenance-of-effort requirements for state subsidies to public higher ed. (The mechanism is essentially a grant-in-aid; that’s much the same way the feds got the states to raise the drinking age just before I turned 18. Thanks, guys.) If a state wants its students to have access to federal financial aid, that state would have to commit to funding its public higher ed at a minimum of some specified level. The logic, straightforwardly enough, is that higher subsidies can keep tuitions down, and thereby keep student loan burdens down. Better, this approach would actually reward innovation, rather than banning it; colleges that found ways to teach more efficiently would reap material rewards, and colleges that didn’t would continue a slow bleed.

In the meantime, I’m hopeful that this bill passes the full House and eventually makes its way to law. I’d much rather have my cc spend its limited resources on innovative teaching than on the paperwork hoops of 49 other states. Kneecapping public higher ed is not the way to get the for-profits under control; if anything, it just gives them an even larger opening than they already have. If you want to get the for-profits under control, the single best way is to beef up the publics. Give the for-profits real competition. But if you can’t or won’t do that, at least stop doing active harm.