On July 24th, the House Education and Workforce Committee approved a bill (26-13) called the Supporting Academic Freedom through Regulatory Relief Act. Introduced by Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-FL), the bill is intended to repeal regulations issued in 2010 and 2011 by the Department of Education that increase oversight on gainful employment, state authorization, and federal credit hour regulations. The Relief Act calls for a stop to these regulations until after Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act (HEA) (most observers predict that the HEA will not surface for review in Congress until at least 2014).
The original intent of these DOE regulations was to curb the bad practices of notorious actors within the field of higher education. Unfortunately, in so doing, the policies in Washington have framed a false construct of higher education that pits nonprofit and public institutions against for-profit and private enterprise institutions.
In media outlets and publications, there is a resounding and recurring tendency to uplift nonprofit educational institutions against a backdrop of for-profit endeavors vilified en masse as seeking to leech students of their money and leave them in debt with no viable career options. They’re often simultaneously affiliated with robust lobbying efforts in Washington and therefore shrouded even more darkly as covertly manipulating the strings on the Hill.
Indeed, there is no getting around the fact that there have been some egregiously bad actors out there. Nevertheless, lines are much more blurred than we’d like to believe. Last year in an excellent article in The Atlantic, Andrew Kelly filled in the holes of this argument by proving that when you look at who is spending the most amount of money lobbying in D.C., the big spenders are not in fact the for-profits but nonprofits like the State University of New York, University of Texas, University of Colorado, Boston University, and Johns Hopkins: “All in all, thirteen traditional institutions spent more than $1 million in lobbying from 2010-2011, seven of whom were public systems funded with state tax dollars.”
In fact, many of these lobbying efforts were geared toward making less transparent the return on investments and workforce data after graduation. Yes, those public and nonprofit institutions endeared to us were against the idea of the federal government collecting this kind of useful data about accountability and outcomes.
All this to say that there are also incredibly virtuous and earnest for-profit ventures that choose to be funded by private capital in order to move more nimbly. A major part of the reason that higher education is in the news so prominently these days is because the incredible forays into technology have dramatically shaken up the status quo of higher education. We’re now having very different conversations about pedagogy, student-centric learning, blended and adaptive learning, learning outcomes, e-learning portfolios, workforce needs, and affordability precisely because of the way in which technological innovation and advancement—mostly through private enterprise—has led to a fundamental shift in our understanding of higher education and lifelong learning.
The transformation of our educational system will only be realized if institutional leaders feel the freedom to experiment with various technologies, advancements, and opportunities that come from both the public and private sectors. This means a lessening, not an increase, in barriers to adoption. The effort to adapt willingly to change asks so much of institutional leaders already that additional regulations will only make it more difficult for even the most daring leaders to consider improving a broken system.
As we consider the looming reauthorization of the HEA, we need to ask whether it makes sense for us to continue tinkering with an outdated piece of legislation or instead consider all of the emergent innovations and build something new that reconceives of higher education as the core facilitator of lifelong learning.
The academic terrain is evolving in ways for which the HEA of 1965 cannot begin to account. Instead of heaping on more rules and regulations that punish bad actors within the field, we need to incentivize institutions not simply to broaden access but also make postsecondary education fundamentally affordable with a dedicated eye toward quality and meaningful student-learning outcomes. The Regulatory Relief Act, which still has to pass a very divided House, is notable because it effectively presses the pause button on the layering of more strictures and more inputs on a system, which should instead be more focused on student outcomes.