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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Red Tape and Higher Education

Our chapter on bureaucracy and the administrative state discusses the ways in which regulations affect everyday life, including education. The House Education and Workforce Committee yesterday held a hearing on the regulatory burdens facing American schools.

Inside Higher Ed reports:

While the hearing focused mostly on K-12 education, colleges and universities were represented by Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John’s College, in Annapolis. He said the main burden for colleges stems from three sources: responsibilities under the Higher Education Act; regulation by agencies outside the Education Department; and accreditors taking on regulatory oversight of institutions participating in programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, the law that governs most federal student aid and college programs.

“Whatever the vantage point, the regulation of colleges and universities is massive,” Nelson said in his testimony. “When I step back from the mass of the more mundane record-keeping, reporting and compliance environment, I try to see what the effect of all this is on our principal task, fulfilling our educational mission for the sake of our students. Every diversion or distraction from these primary purposes weakens our best attempts to achieve those ends.”

As a visual aid, Nelson, who was also testifying on behalf of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, brought along a stack of binders containing summaries of every single law with which colleges must comply. Regulations and sub-regulatory guidelines for the Education Department laws, meanwhile, take up three file boxes, he said. (Nelson named a few of the 'A' regulations with which colleges comply: the Anti-Trust Act of 1890, the Artists' Rights Act, and the Atomic Energy Act. The committee's chairman, Representative John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, responded, "It would be funny, except I know that it's a real burden.")

“It is not a question of the good intentions behind these requirements, but that they continue to accumulate with no paring back or review of what is already on the books,” Nelson said.


Yet Nelson said his biggest concern is the “ripple effect” that federal regulations have on colleges’ independence. “Better the government help and encourage and support access to our institutions than seek ways to have us alter our many and diverse visions of what an education ought to look like,” Nelson said. “This diversity of mission and purpose is the greatest strength of American colleges and universities. In reviewing the regulatory environment for higher education, it would be good if this truth might be kept in mind: that institutional autonomy is a strength, and that where institutions abuse their public trust, correction ought to be aimed at the institution that has abused that trust rather than at the rest of us through another general wide-ranging regulation.”

Nelson also expressed concern that accrediting agencies are becoming vessels for the federal government to ensure that colleges are following regulations.