GOP looks to scrap Obama-era rule on college credit hours

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As part of the Higher Education Act reauthorization, House Republicans are taking aim at a Department of Education rule meant to stop colleges from defrauding the federal student aid system.

The proposal to roll back the Obama-era rules that define a “credit hour” is one of dozens of provisions in the 542-page House bill, known as the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity Through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act.

In 2011, the Education Department enacted controversial rules that allowed institutions of higher education to define a credit hour in a number of ways, not just by the traditional hours of instruction or “seat time.”

A college could also count the “amount of work represented” in a student’s learning outcomes or “evidence of student achievement” toward credit hours.

By setting minimum standards of what constitutes a credit hour, the Obama administration said it could reduce the amount of federal student aid fraud committed by higher education institutions that have lax oversight.

{mosads}But proponents of the House GOP legislation say that the federal government had been overreaching in its attempt to define curriculum-based standards.

“The creation of a federal definition of a credit hour was part of the Obama administration’s ‘Washington knows best’ approach to higher education, and it only created barriers to innovation for students and institutions,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a sponsor of the PROSPER Act, told The New York Times

However, some fear that repealing the federal definition would allow bad actors to manipulate standards to get students through courses faster — with less benefits — and therefore increase and exploit the volume of federal student aid an institution receives.

Prior to the rules, there was not a single definition for what constituted a credit hour, which has generally been based on how much time a student spends in a classroom.

As part of a crackdown on for-profit colleges, the Obama administration issued new rules for credit hours. The action came after reports from the Department of Education inspector general that found weak supervision over some academic programs when it came to federal aid.

In one report, the inspector general found that a for-profit, online university allowed a student to accrue nine credits for a 10-week course.

At most universities, a 15-week class or program is often valued at three credits. Many four-year undergraduate degrees require the completion of about 120 credits.

Although the Obama-era rules disproportionately impacted for-profit schools, many in the nonprofit university space oppose them as well, calling them burdensome and overreaching.

“Very clearly what the Obama administration was doing was targeting for-profits, but they didn’t think about the implications [the rule had] for the majority of students and their campuses” in the nonprofit sector, said Jonathan Fansmith, the director of government relations at the American Council on Education, which represents roughly 1,800 presidents at higher education institutions and accreditation organizations.

The rules set by the Obama administration would not have prevented the problems found by the inspector general, the American Council on Education argued in a 2011 comment letter to the Department of Education, while noting that once the problems were raised with school officials, they were quickly fixed.

Critics of the 2011 rules have also said the metrics are too vague and hard to implement.

“The definition of a credit hour [as created through the Obama administration regulation] actually makes it harder to have innovation and flexibility in the programs you offer,” Fansmith said.

Other groups like the center-left think tank New America oppose throwing out the Obama-era rules, even though they say traditional measurements of student progress are outdated.

“This bill [from House Republicans] broadly throws out the baseline of consumer protection and opens up new loopholes for new players to come in and defraud students,” says Amy Laitinen, the director of higher education at New America.

Even before the 2011 rules, accreditation agencies had policed the credit-hour policies of colleges and universities through regular vetting. Fansmith’s group says the federal government should focus on strengthening that system, rather than trying to usurp it.

“The federal government’s role is to work with accreditors to ensure they are fulfilling their oversight role,” Fansmith said. “It’s not appropriate for federal government to leapfrog accreditors.”

In a letter sent to the Department of Education earlier this year, New America disagreed.

It said more accountability is needed, citing inspector general reports in both 2009 and 2010 that identified three regional accrediting agencies that did not have sufficient accountability measures in place. In addition, none of those agencies had defined a credit hour.

The PROSPER Act would also dilute another Obama-era regulation that requires institutions providing online classes to receive authorization from any state in which they operates and collect federal student aid. The rule, which is scheduled to go into effect next year, has already been plagued by lawsuits and delays.

“Congress, the Department of Education, accreditors and states are all touching their nose and saying ‘not it,’ and pointing to someone else,” Laitinen told The Hill on Tuesday. “Someone has to be accountable to $150 billion in federal loans and grants, and not just say it’s someone else’s problem.”

According to New America, there were roughly 20 competency-based academic programs — ones that measure progress by how well a student has mastered a subject — in the United States in 2012. There are now more than 500 such programs, the organization says.

What those numbers show, Laitinen said, is that the rule did not stifle innovation in education.

“Is it clunky? Absolutely. But can schools figure out how to work with it,” she said. “I am all for getting rid of a clunky measure, but you can’t do that unless you have something to replace it with.”

The PROSPER Act also does away with the tougher rules placed on for-profits, including the gainful-employment rule and the 90-10 rule, which stipulate that for-profit universities must prove that their programs result in graduates obtaining good jobs, and that 90 percent or less of a for-profit university’s funding comes from federal student aid.

The Senate is drafting its own bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and is expected to release it early next year.

Tags For-profit higher education in the United States Higher education in the United States Virginia Foxx

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