WASHINGTON — When it comes to higher education, the system that oversees it is a tangled, bureaucratic mess, according to a new report released Tuesday.
“America’s 6,000 colleges and universities live in a jungle of red tape that is expensive and confusing and unnecessary,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The report by a congressional task force in conjunction with the American Council on Education, offers recommendations for the federal government on how to modify regulations and streamline programs. In a nutshell, it says extensive regulations handcuff both schools and students.
“Each year, 20 million American families fill out a complicated, 108-question form called the FAFSA to obtain a grant or loan to help pay for college,” Alexander said. “Several experts testified before our committee that just two questions would tell the Department of Education 95 percent of what it needs to know to determine a student’s eligibility for a grant or loan.”
With that, Alexander stood up and unfurled a copy of the questionnaire, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, dramatically letting the pages fall to the floor.
The student aid program, though, is just one of many areas for improvement the report mentions. It also provides guidelines on improving a variety of regulations dealing with consumer information, student eligibility for financial aid, campus crime and institutional accreditation.
“We are not here to ask you to deregulate higher ed,” said Nicholas Zeppos, the chancellor of Vanderbilt University and a co-chairman of the task force, speaking before the committee. “Rather, we want to bring attention to the fact that, over time, oversight of higher education has expanded in ways that undermine the ability of our institutions to serve students and accomplish our missions.”
The main way the federal regulations hamper schools, according to Zeppos and others who sat before the panel, is through costly compliance measures.
At Vanderbilt, Zeppos said, the university spends about $146 million annually on federal compliance. While much of the cost ensures federal regulations are met for research, $14 million goes toward complying with federal standards that Zeppos argues could be consolidated and made more efficient.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wondered if changes in federal policy would go toward reducing tuition?
Zeppos said during the hearing it would be unlikely. He elaborated with reporters afterward.
“Some schools may say, ‘Now, we can use this money for research, more need-based aid, more internship experiences. [But,] I understand where Sen. Warren is coming from… A lot of other things are happening here,” Zeppos said.
The report, Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities, also lists 59 specific requirements the federal government could amend. About a quarter of the regulations, according to the witnesses, are controlled by the Department of Education.
Alexander, who served as secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush and was the president of the University of Tennessee in the 1980s, consulted withEducation Secretary Arne Duncan about the report on Friday. Alexander told a small group of reporters Duncan told him he was pleased with the work. The Obama administration has been helpful when confronting similar issues in the past, Alexander added.
As far as pushing reform through Congress, Alexander said he expects some of the recommendations will be added tothe reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is due to expire by the end September. His goal, he said, is to get a bipartisan proposal on the Senate floor by late this summer..
Other suggestions in the report, including simplifying the FAFSA could be solved in separate legislation, such as his proposed FAST Act, Alexander said.