Balancing Quality with Innovation: Key Issues at Stake in Negotiated Rulemaking

This month, watchers of higher ed policy were busy with talk of negotiated rulemaking (or “neg reg”), as the U.S. Department of Education kicked off a series of significant proposed regulatory changes with far-reaching consequences. Federal law requires the Department to follow this complicated process in order to make any regulatory changes to programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA) the section which administers more than $130 billion annually in federal financial aid. (Note: If you’re tuning into neg reg and need to start with a primer, check out our 101: Negotiated Rulemaking to learn more about the process.)

The Department has initiated a sprawling review of issues including topics from accreditation and quality assurance, faith-based institutions, and distance and competency-based education. By our accounts, these are important questions to be asked. With billions of dollars, thousands of institutions, and millions of students, the stakes are high-and the attention warranted. Each one of these topics are important, weighty issues. And each one of the issues could very well demand their own set of conversations.

That’s not to say, however, that this process is without concern or caution. The negotiated rulemaking sessions represent an opportunity to advance improvements to federal policy, but also, these sessions put at risk quality and consumer protections. The topics in front of the committee will impact millions of students, and are interconnected (see Deb Bushway’s piece here). Further, this rulemaking is happening on the eve of the next rewrite of the Higher Education Act, where lawmakers will be considering many of the same issues and questions.

Embedded in this new regulatory debate as they delve into the rules and parameters for which institutions can access federal student aid. Negotiators will likely struggle with how to oversee distance education; what standards and procedures accreditors use; how to foster innovation in higher education; and freedom of speech and religion. In the coming weeks and months, these conversations will go deep into the weeds, and become highly technical. As the discussion and debate unfolds, here are three key issues that advocates for today’s students should be monitoring closely:

Innovation, Distance Education, and Competency-Based Education (CBE). There remains a delicate balance between expanding innovation and ensuring quality in educational program delivery. Many of today’s students have sought alternative pathways to earning a degree or credential, through means such as competency-based education programs, where students move through a program of study based on their mastery of skills and competencies. (To learn more about competency-based education, or “CBE,”  see our 101 here). However, through this negotiated rulemaking process, it remains unclear how semester credit hours, academic year, and satisfactory academic progress will be defined and measured in the future. Unfortunately, without clarity around these key issues, confusion ensues for institutions, and the further expansion and growth of these alternative pathways could be stymied. Quality and student outcomes must be at the center of any regulation, and it is unclear whereand ifthe proposals will reach an appropriate balance between innovation and protecting student interests.

Expanding provider eligibility for Title IV. It is no surprise that the demographics of today’s students have changed dramatically. However, the manner in which financial aid is awarded and disbursed has remained nearly constant for half a century. Today’s students deserveand advocates should demandthat regulations be updated to ensure access to financial aid for the greatest number of students. In this rulemaking, the Department is considering ways to allow students to use federal aid at new and different kinds of programsshorter-term, better connected to employer, and offerings outside of traditional institutions of higher education. This is an idea we have supported at Higher Learning Advocates (see Emily Bouck West’s paper here). But again, there are important conversations to be had about how to balance innovation with student outcomes. Especially in a new and largely untested approach, proceeding with caution and creating safe spaces for innovationsuch as through a demonstration programwould allow innovation to occur while simultaneously holding student interests at the center of policy and testing the best approach to future change.  

Oversight and accreditation. Accreditation is often categorized as an opaque and complicated system, resulting in little attention from a wide swath of policymakers. While complicated, it can not be disregarded; as gatekeepers, accreditors hold the keys to institutional eligibility for the federal student aid programs and which procedures institutions must have in place. Accreditors work to ensure academic integrity and quality is at the very bedrock of the nation’s higher education system.This negotiated rulemaking panel is proposing a series of changes to the accreditation system, again in an effort to allow for further innovation and change. Negotiators will need to assess and discuss the rules that govern who can be an accreditor, what processes they must use, and if their standards need to match up to their peers.  

At the end of the day, and as each decision is made, it is imperative that negotiators and the Department always err on the side of student outcomes; find responsible and reasonable ways to create safe spaces for innovation; and be cautious of unintended consequences.