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Federal Follies

Federal Follies

I am a deep believer in the need for governmental regulation to help moderate pure market forces. Earlier this year, I was delighted to see new federal interest in, what seemed to me, some clear abuses in higher education, particularly emanating from the for-profit sector.  But, I know, be careful what you wish for.

Currently two new lines of policy are being spun out of the Department of Education: one frankly dubious, the other just plain berserk. I obviously speak out of self interest as a higher ed. participant, but of course I still think that I and many like-minded colleagues are right.

The first thrust involves distance education where current regulations call for institutions to obtain approval from each state within which they operate. Some states seem to be quite reasonable, and it’s probably good that they be aware of educational offerings in their domain whatever the source. Other states, however, are currently throwing up expensive roadblocks, doubtless in the name of quality control, but pretty clearly also to defend local institutions against outside competition. The balance sheet will not be clear for a couple of years when provisions go into full effect, and already there is backlash. I do think educational consumers deserve some assurance of access to the largest possible range of offerings, and the new moves do not press in this direction. Again, not clearly wrongheaded, but needing some further consideration.

Then there’s the new set of (quite unclear) regulations apparently initially designed to guard against abuse of commercial agents in recruiting and retaining students — another reasonable goal. But in the process, current language suggests that not only commercial agents, but also faculty and academic administrators must be controlled to the extent of being barred from reward (raise, bonus, promotion) for results that add to student numbers, improve retention, or otherwise contribute to these aspects of the educational process. This at a time when we are otherwise being urged to pay more attention to learning outcomes, educational results and the like. This is truly bizarre, making it almost impossible to relate any rewards to educational improvements.

And there is yet additional discussion of still further federal regulations — for example in the area of research projects — that, at the least, would add considerable expense just as all levels of government are otherwise urging us to keep costs down.

It’s hard to imagine what’s going through the heads of some of our colleagues in government, but we need some prudent interventions or the very nature of federal involvement in higher education will be called into question. Common sense would be a good starting point.