Over the past two years, the Obama administration has unveiled an expansive new package of “program integrity” regulations for higher education. Two of those provisions—one creating a federal definition of the “credit hour” and one requiring online postsecondary providers to obtain state authorization wherever they enroll students—effectively erect barriers to innovative providers.
Yesterday, a large bipartisan House majority, including sixty-nine Democrats, voted 303-114 for a bill that would repeal both provisions (H.R. 2117). While the bill has little chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate, the House vote represents a symbolic win for proponents of innovation in higher education. What’s at stake?
Defining the credit hour:
The logic: A federal definition will prevent colleges from inflating the value of their credits so that students can fulfill the requirements for financial aid. The regulation defines “credit hours” as one hour of direct faculty instruction and two hours of out of class work for 15 weeks (or “reasonable equivalencies”).
The problem: Some of the most promising innovative models in higher education are not based on seat-time and/or a traditional academic calendar. How would we define a “credit hour” for a competency-based program, where students learn at their own pace and then take proctored exams to prove their competencies (a la Western Governor’s University)? By coercing nontraditional providers into traditional boxes, the credit hour regulation would limit the options available to working adults and other “nontraditional” enrollees that are best served by these models.
The logic: Colleges that provide postsecondary education in a different state are often obligated by individual states to obtain approval. Online providers present something of a challenge in that they may enroll students in states where they have no “physical presence.” In a strange twist on federalism, the regulation ties eligibility for federal aid to state authorization.
The problem: The rule forces online providers to gain separate approval from every separate jurisdiction where they enroll students, generating serious transaction costs, duplication, and redundancy. A survey of 230 institutions with online programs by an accrediting agency found the average cost to institutions would be about $150,000 a year. Fifty-nine percent reported that they would stop accepting students from states with burdensome authorization requirements.
At a time when the nation is looking to provide more high quality postsecondary education for less money, these regulations push higher education in the opposite direction. Congrats to the House coalition for acting to remove these barriers.