Senate Higher Education Hearing Recap

Deirdre Dlugoleski

On Tuesday, the Senate HELP Committee held a hearing on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, with a focus on the final report from the Task Force on Government Regulation of Higher Education. Formed in 2013, the 16-member task force, which consisted entirely of higher education leaders, produced the report Recalibrating Regulations of Colleges and Universities. It makes 59 recommendations to the federal government for reducing the burden of regulatory compliance on institutions of higher education. The two co-chairs, Dr. William Kirwan (Chancellor of the University System of Maryland) and Mr. Nicholas Zeppos, Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, both testified before the committee.

The report makes the case that the cost of compliance plays a significant role in preventing universities and colleges from serving their students better. Chancellor Zeppos noted that a recent evaluation by Boston Consulting Group estimated that compliance with federal regulations costs Vanderbilt $150 million dollars each year, or 11% of its total non-hospital expenditures ' adding an additional $11,000 in tuition each year for its students. Tuition increases, moreover, have become universities' primary strategy to cover rising administrative costs, since states have largely disinvested themselves of higher education. (Much to Senator Alexander's delight, Chancellor Zeppos was quick to identify rising healthcare costs as a major drain on universities; Senator Alexander took the opportunity to note that mandatory spending on Medicaid had been instrumental in cutting state funding for higher education.)

Both chancellors emphasized the need for a simplified FAFSA and financial aid process (an opinion echoed during questions by both Republican and Democratic Senators), greater dynamism in distance education, and streamlined processes for admitting transfer students and converting their credentials, and for returning Title IV funds when students drop out. Chancellor Zeppos noted the need for fewer regulatory barriers to MOOCs, and also suggested creating regulatory safe harbors for institutions of higher education.

In a display of bipartisanship, Committee members from both sides of the aisle showed support for the report and its recommendations. Others, however, expressed skepticism. Senator Murray (D-WA) repeatedly questioned the witnesses on how they might make suggestions for a data collection process that was not only more efficient, but better at getting students and families the information necessary to make college decisions, such as graduation rates and gainful employment.

The greatest challenge to the report's recommendations, however, came from Senator Warren, who bluntly asked both witnesses whether, if all of the federal regulations on universities and colleges were repealed, they would be willing to commit to giving that money back to the students in the form of a decreased tuition. Both cited the reality that universities are underfunded in many areas ' including not only critical research and student services, but also programs like need-based financial aid ' and need the flexibility to reinvest.

Since Tuesday, a group of advocacy organizations, including the Education Trust, the Institute for College Access and Success, the National Consumer Law Center, Generation Progress, and the AFT have released a statement criticizing the report as being too one-sided, lacking both input from and sufficient protections for students, and tearing away accountability for institutions that take a large amount of taxpayer money.„