Federal regulations should put today’s students first
This week, the U.S. Department of Education began negotiating regulations that govern higher education. We at Lumina Foundation care deeply about this process and its results.
Why? Because if you’re an educator, a student, an adult looking to enroll in college for the first time, an employee eager to get more education — or simply a citizen who cares about America’s future — this is big news.
When negotiators gather in Washington, D.C., they’ll debate and potentially decide on rules for accreditation, distance learning, TEACH Grants, and much more. In short, they’ll potentially decide on how programs of study are authorized, recognized, and made eligible for federal financial aid. The department’s current proposal seeks to deregulate many of the existing standards to create space for less regulated innovation — a move that could have an adverse effect on education quality, accountability, and student learning and outcomes given the lack of priority for student interests and protections in the proposal.
The process is known as negotiated rulemaking. While the goal is to improve the way we teach, learn, and improve lives through education, the fact is that shortsighted regulations can derail progress.
Regulations can have considerable influence. Though they are not the same as laws, they help guide higher education leaders as they implement what can be, at times, confusing and contradictory legislative language. In short, when done correctly, regulations are a much-needed, powerful force for complying with federal law and meeting crucial public policy goals, such as achieving the kind of post-high school student outcomes Americans seek and deserve, and that the nation needs. But when done poorly, bad precedents are established — and students suffer.
This is why we care so deeply about this process. The key to effective regulatory policy is thoughtful design and implementation that is flexible enough to keep up with changing times, policies, and technologies, while considering the views and experiences of students and other constituencies. This is the lens that we see innovation through on the topics being negotiated. Regulations around the proposed topics should protect students from education providers and programs that could impose harm by not meeting a high standard of quality — one that ensures that the education a student receives has value. They should also guard against waste, fraud, and abuse; in this case, of federal financial aid — a problem that affects all taxpayers and leaves students with the bill. This is also especially concerning given the growing instances of education providers who have been culpable. The current proposal would do more to reduce oversight, and does little to strengthen these kinds of protections or facilitate responsible innovation that does not empower those that might exploit the most vulnerable students.
Because of these stakes it’s extremely important that any regulatory changes be carefully and thoughtfully considered with input from a representative committee of negotiators. This is a rigorous standard to meet for negotiating on just one issue. The sheer breadth of the issues in this process and the limited scope of constituencies represented could lead to shortsighted decisions, especially given the complexity of each issue. The fact that this process will attempt to negotiate on a wide variety causes concern.
This is the time to move ahead, not backward. Rising costs, high debts, and broken promises have tainted what should be a positive narrative about the transformative power of higher education. Education after high school is not wholly responsive or adaptable to the enrollment patterns and learning styles of today’s students, nor the needs of the job market. And the direction that we ultimately take will have huge implications for the future of work and the next generation of learners. That’s why prioritizing the needs and best interests of students in these negotiations is essential. It’s an imperative that is too important to take lightly. If done correctly, policies at every level around these issues will help us ensure that today’s students have access to the best options and outcomes. On a human level, that means restored confidence and changed lives.
So, let’s seize this opportunity to meet the urgent and shifting needs of today’s students, and put responsible, far-sighted regulations to work for generations to come.