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Department Of Education Plans To Change Rules For Regulating Colleges


The Department of Education wants to relax regulations on colleges and the agencies that accredit them. This includes how long-distance learning programs are defined. NPR's Cory Turner explains.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: This rewrite process has an official name. It's tedious. I promise I'm only going to say it once - negotiated rulemaking. Translation...

LINDA RAWLES: We're all going to go to D.C. and argue about new regulations.

TURNER: Linda Rawles is a lawyer who's represented private, for-profit colleges in previous rulemaking. This time, she says, is different because the Education Department wants to overhaul a laundry list of regulations.

RAWLES: It's a little frightening to everyone in its breadth and depth, but it should also be, I think, exciting.

TURNER: Among the rules negotiators will debate are, what is the definition of a credit hour, and should what a student learns matter more than how much time she spends learning it? What's important is that all these rules serve roughly the same purpose.

CLARE MCCANN: To ensure that taxpayers are protected and that students are protected when they're enrolling in college.

TURNER: Clare McCann is a policy analyst at New America, a left-leaning think tank. And if you're wondering, protected from what? The answer is a situation like this.


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: One of this country's largest for-profit college chains is in the process of selling or shutting down scores of campuses and online programs.

TURNER: In 2014, the Ed. Department froze federal aid to Corinthian Colleges because, the government argued, the school was a bad deal and had misled students about their job prospects. McCann likens college oversight to a three-legged stool - the federal government, states and accrediting agencies.

MCCANN: And if you cut off any one of them, the whole thing falls down.

TURNER: This rewrite, McCann says, could dramatically scale back oversight of higher education. But Rawles, a self-described libertarian, says the stool's already in bad shape.

RAWLES: Right now, it's probably a wobbly stool. It's a stool - you look at it. You can't always understand each leg.

TURNER: Rawles says it's a mistake to assume that simplifying the rules makes them weaker.

RAWLES: The stool could strengthen if the right people show up and the right rules are written.

TURNER: But she admits it's not clear that will happen. And Barmak Nassirian, who's also been a negotiator in previous rulemaking, worries that fewer, weaker rules will mean more fraud.

BARMAK NASSIRIAN: Fraud tends to be a lazy man's game. I mean, they'll just go to where it's easiest to commit.

TURNER: Nassirian is director of federal policy with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and says higher ed is no stranger to wrongdoing. Before the collapse of Corinthian Colleges, he says, it was the rise of correspondence schools. The Education Department, for its part, argues that too many rules have become a barrier to innovation. Last year speaking at a Wall Street Journal forum, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos signaled her desire to shake up the system.


BETSY DEVOS: I think for several decades now, we have given the subtle or not-so-subtle message that the only successful path to an adult life is through a four-year college or university. And I think that's been at the expense of lots of great opportunities.

TURNER: Opportunities to innovate. To this, though, Barmak Nassirian offers a simple warning.

NASSIRIAN: Innovation is at once the great hope of humanity and the best opportunity to sell snake oil.

TURNER: The process of negotiating new rules will take many months and requires negotiators to find consensus on all of these contentious issues. In fact, one quirk of the rulemaking process is that if negotiators don't find consensus, then the Education Department can simply step in and write the rules itself. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
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