The US Department of Education’s (ED) proposals for new regulations presented to the negotiating team in the current negotiated rulemaking (aka “neg reg”) are being thoroughly analyzed by a number of constituents. These thought leaders are dissecting the issue, the history of the issue, reasons for change from status quo and, at times, the risks of change. What is largely missing from the discussion is higher-level analysis that considers the interdependence and interactions of the (many, many) proposed changes. It’s easy to get lost in focusing on one small (or not-so-small) piece. But when pieced back together, the “Gestalt”, or whole, is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
This is a particularly interesting issue in this neg reg, since it is far more reaching and structurally complex than past neg regs. There is one main committee with voting members, and three subcommittees that will discuss different aspects of the different parts of the proposals, and recommend language to the main committee. However, the process to ensure effective interaction between these committees remains unclear. Members of these subcommittees will focus on their respective topic areas, and the main voting committee is supposed to take and vote on the subcommittees’ recommendations in addition to voting on their own committee’s recommendations. Ideally, the main committee would be expected and able to knit this all together and consider the various interactions between the pieces. But they will not have been in deep and detailed conversations about all of the pieces. And, for the larger higher education policy discussion which this neg reg is jump-starting, it is the Gestalt that truly matters most.
Let’s take an example: one of the proposals from ED is to allow institutions of higher education (IHEs) to outsource up to 100 percent of an educational program to an outside provider. These outside providers do not have to be accredited or licensed, nor are they subject to any of the current laws and regulations that govern higher education institutions. The proposal would take oversight of this process out of the hands of states or the federal government and defer the key quality decisions and oversight to institution’s accreditor. This proposal is first being considered by a subcommittee of the neg reg. Concurrently, a different set of proposals regarding accreditation is being considered by the main committee. These proposals appear to make it easier to become a federally recognized accreditor, and that could dramatically restructure what we have come to rely on regarding our regional and national accreditation systems. It will be essential for these two conversations to be carefully considered in the context of one another.
If all of ED’s proposals were to be implemented, ED would be deferring accountability for quality and integrity in entirely new configurations with little understanding for how such agreements might function, or for the risk/benefit balance of these partnerships.
Another example could be the proposed new definitions of regular and substantive interaction, the credit hour, and distance education. For each of these terms, ED is redefining the current regulation and, in some cases, changing who is overseeing institutional compliance. While the distance education subcommittee could (and ought to) consider the combined impact of all of these proposed changes, it will also be essential to consider these proposals in combination with proposed changes to accreditation.
If ED overly streamlines the path to approval for accreditation agencies, this could lead to a proliferation of such agencies, each with the power to create its own requirements for regular and substantive interactions, the credit hour, and what—if any—standards it has for allowing schools to outsource 100 percent of their educational programing. This could present significant variability across accreditation agencies, causing confusion for students and their families, and raising real potential for a race to the bottom in higher education. An outcome such as this could profoundly damage the reputation of distance education, having an adverse effect on transfer, accessibility, and credential completion – the exact opposite of what our nation needs.
Perhaps some of these changes are and worth considering individually. However, concerns ought to arise for all of us when we take a step back from the separate conversations and consider the interdependencies. ED’s efforts to support innovation are admirable. It is equally important to maintain a focus on quality student outcomes as we experiment with new models to meet our nation’s higher education needs. Many thanks to the diligent members of the neg reg committees for their work on both of these goals. Our students, our communities and our nation need their best thinking to move us forward with responsible innovation.