Many of us received the news with relief and hope. Reps. John KlineJohn Paul KlineLobbying world NCLB agreement would overhaul Uncle Sam's role in schooling Republican to Pentagon: Release disputed study on women in combat MORE (R-Minn.) and Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxGOP lawmaker fined ,000 for failing to complete House security screening Former GOP Rep. Mark Walker fielding calls about dropping NC Senate bid, running for House Overnight Health Care — Biden unveils January vaccine deadline MORE (R-N.C.) had introduced H.R. 970, the Supporting Academic Freedom Through Regulatory Relief Act. The purpose of the bill is to put a halt to the federal government's near-constant injecting of itself into the academic decision-making of higher education. And, when Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTexas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term On The Money — IRS chief calls for reinforcements Burr brother-in-law ordered to testify in insider trading probe MORE (R-N.C.), joined by 19 co-sponsors, introduced companion bill S. 559, we even allowed ourselves to become cautiously optimistic.
The House and Senate bills call for the rollback of some of the most egregious regulatory interference in higher education by the federal government in the past decade. These are regulations that mandate a federal definition of credit hour; judge the worth of academic programs by gainful employment or non-academic factors such as student earnings and debt; and tell states how to authorize higher education institutions. The bills also halt work underway to establish a federal quality review capacity to be implemented in 2015-2016, a Postsecondary Institutions Ratings System to judge the performance of colleges and universities. The combined impact of these regulations is to position government officials in the U.S. Department of Education to function as de facto faculty and academic administrators on a daily basis.
Absent these bills or a similar effort, a less-than-attractive scenario for the future of higher education is likely, characterized by a major shift in the relationship between higher education and the federal government. Until recently, the federal government did not seek to directly engage the academic decision-making of colleges and universities, nor did it seek to play a major role in managing or directing this work. Instead, government held higher education itself accountable for sound academic decision-making. Now, however, we see government taking a more and more dominant role in the academic affairs of colleges and universities.
The bills are an important step not only in limiting federal intrusion into the academic work of higher education institutions; they are also important because, by keeping this work in the hands of academics, the bills aid in sustaining the benefits of nongovernmental accreditation, the primary means of assuring the quality of academic efforts. Together with accreditors, colleges and universities examine and enhance the quality of their work. The regulations identified in the bills interfere with this important shared pursuit.
A federal definition of the credit hour interferes with academic decisions about the structure and shape of college curricula. Government determination of post-education expectations of earnings and debt payment by students (gainful employment) inappropriately drives what programs are offered by a college or university. The regulations instruct states on the conditions for authorizing higher education institutions to operate (state authorization), not only interfering with state authority, but also dominating the expansion efforts of colleges and universities.
A federal quality review capacity established through the Postsecondary Institutions Ratings System would also play a central role in this future scenario, using federal indicators to judge higher education's academic work as a key first step. Called for by the president and under development by the Department of Education, this system would judge and categorize the levels of performance of colleges and universities based on federal indicators such as access, affordability and student outcomes. This federal quality review capacity would also be furthered by expanding existing benchmarking databases such as College Scorecard or College Navigator, allowing students and the public to identify and compare characteristics of colleges and universities. These databases may be useful sources of information, but are questionable as means of judging quality.
Another feature of the scenario could be the creation of additional new authorities on academic quality, some government-based or otherwise government-connected. The idea of new authorities often emerges in Washington discussions about innovation and includes, for example, suggestions of new accrediting organizations or alternative new organizations that review quality, especially for the non-institutional sector of private companies offering courses, massive open online courses (MOOCs) or badge providers. The new actors, if government-based, would be a further expansion of federal authority. Discussions of whether and how to encourage innovation in higher education would now include government considerations of what counts as quality, especially if there is federal funding for the students obtaining some education from non-institutional sources.
H.R. 970 and S. 559 are essential to efforts to keep academic decision-making in higher education where it belongs, with faculty and academic administrators. They are vital to avoiding a federal system of quality review that would, however unintentionally, be intrusive and counterproductive. The bills come at a good moment, when both the House and the Senate are planning to introduce legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Might we envision that such a bill actually becomes law or part of a law? Might we avoid further government intrusion into the day-to-day academic work of our colleges and universities?
Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.