Congress prepares to simplify federal regulations on higher education

By Mark Lieberman

Administrators from several universities implored Congress to simplify and streamline federal requirements for higher education at a committee hearing Feb. 24.

Senators on the Committee for Health, Education, Labor andPensions listened as the co-chairs of the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education relayed key findings from their report on federal regulation of higher education from financial aid to university funding. The report requests 59 possible fixes for the government’s current policies.

“We were asked to determine smarter regulations and a streamlined process while maintaining a high level of transparency and accountability,” said Britt Kirwan, co-chair of the task force and third chancellor of the University of Maryland.

Congressional rulings could resolve at least a dozen of those fixes, Kirwan said. This hearing comes during Congress’ ongoing bid to revamp the No Child Left Behind Act, with federal regulation a key sticking point in that debate .

In his opening statement, committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) offered three examples of federal regulation that need improvement, including the fact that Vanderbilt University spent $150 million — or 11 percent of its total expenditures — in a single year to comply with federal regulations, according to a review conducted by Vanderbilt last year.

“These examples and others like them represent sloppy, inefficient governing that wastes money, hurts students, discourages productivity and impedes research,” Alexander said. “Such waste should be an embarrassment to all of us in the government.”

Congress plans to retool the Higher Education Act later this year, Alexander said.

Kirwan proposed a revamping of the FAFSA form, which allows prospective college students to apply for federally funded financial aid on the basis of demonstrated monetary need. Twenty million students fill out this form every year. One proposed revision was the addition of an option to submit a previous year’s tax data as opposed to that of the current year, which is incomplete at the time of the FAFSA’s April deadline.

Sen. Alexander pointed out that the Department of Education only needs answers to two questions — family size and family income — in order to approximate a student’s need for federal financial assistance.

“If our legislation becomes law, then families, guidance counselors and admissions officers would save millions of hours,” Alexander said.

Later, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) devoted several minutes to reading aloud one section of the form that requires specific information with convoluted caveats.

“We had to hire people in the Denver public schools to fill out these forms for people,” Bennet said. “If people think this is trivial, there are millions of students across the country who aren’t getting financial aid because of this form. It makes no sense.”

The dense language in much of the current federal education policy also demands attention, Kirwan said.

“One way to illustrate this fact is that the Higher Education Act is 1000 pages long, and the regulations supporting this act are another 1000 pages,” Kirwan said.

The issue of rising tuition costs also came up during the hearing and in the report. Provoking laughter in the room, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressed Kirwin and co-chair Nick Zeppos, chancellor of Vanderbilt University, several times about their willingness to lower tuition costs if Congress pushes these reforms through. The university representatives demurred.

“If we were to follow the recommendations in that report and repeal those regulations this year, would Vanderbilt commit to reducing its tuition by $1100 per student?” Warren asked Zeppos.

Zeppos started to answer and then Warren interrupted to clarify her question before his full response.

“I understand the temptation to say I will promise to cut, but I do think we should have the freedom to say, ‘This is an area of underinvestment,’ and show that to you,” Zeppos said.

The time has come to take these issues more seriously than they have been in the past, Zeppos argued. The committee will take further steps at its next meeting in April, Alexander said.

“For years, colleges and universities have complained to policymakers about the burdensome nature of federal regulations—we’ve gotten quite good at it,” Zeppos said. “…But the higher education community has not been as transparent until now in presenting data in support of our position and proposed solutions.”

Kirwan assured that the committee that the purpose of the task force is to strengthen the government’s commitment to transparency and efficiency when it comes to higher education.

“Our nation deserves nothing less,” Kirwan said.

Alexander placed the blame for the federal government’s failings on a longstanding tradition of ignoring the issues, refusing to accuse President Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan alone. He recalled that one of his first acts as senator in 2003 was to simplify student aid. At the time, he managed to eliminate seven questions from the financial aid form at that time, but the questions were later replaced and expanded.

“I’m counting on this effort to get a lot farther than the one ten years ago,” Alexander said.

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