Originally published: US News | By Ben Miller | Sep 8, 2016
Summer vacation is officially over in Washington, D.C. Congress is not likely to do much – it’s back in session for a brief window before heading out until after the November election. But the Obama administration enters its final leg with a number of regulations, decisions and new policy initiatives to handle – many of which should shape up for a busy fall in the postsecondary education policy space.
Here are the administration’s hot higher education topics to keep in mind as we move toward cooler weather.
Remaining regulations. While the Obama administration is unlikely to undertake any new regulatory efforts in its final months, it has several key rules that still need finalizing. This includes significant rules that affect online learning and protection of students who have been defrauded by their colleges. The administration has to work fast – rules need to be published before Nov. 1, 2016, in order to take effect by July 1, 2017.
The so-called “borrower defense” regulations are the most important to keep an eye on. These rules create a clearer process for borrowers who were defrauded by their college to discharge their debt. This matters a lot for borrowers stuck with debt they cannot afford – particularly students who attended the now-shuttered Corinthian Colleges. But all colleges will be eyeing these rules carefully, because they also create requirements for institutions to face additional financial requirements if they are caught engaging in questionable behavior.
Two other major rules have been in the pipeline for some time. One, known as “state authorization,” concerns the process a college has to go through if it wants to offer an online program outside of its home state. This rule was first proposed in 2010. The other creates new reporting requirements to judge the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs. The Education Department first announced this rule in 2014, asked for additional comments in April 2016 and apparently still wants to finalize the rules by the end of this year.
Selecting a servicer. Ever since 2008, the Education Department has relied on multiple private companies to service the federal student loans it issues. Now, it is holding a major competition that would change how these contractors operate. In particular, it proposes moving all borrowers to a single servicing platform, which would guarantee a common experience. The department also published a policy memo that proposes new requirements for processing payments and providing borrowers access to special servicing teams, among other issues. The first part of the competition, which at least covers the servicing platform, is expected to finish this year.
A new FAFSA. In years past, students could not start filling out the newest Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, until January 1. This year, they’ll get it October 1. That’s due to a change known as “prior prior year,” which allows students to apply for federal aid using slightly older tax data. In this case, students will be able to apply for federal financial aid for the academic year that starts July 1, 2017, using tax data from 2015 instead of 2016. Applying earlier should help students get a sense of their federal aid eligibility sooner, while also helping them meet deadlines for other forms of state and institutional aid.
Fate of the largest national accreditor. The department will also have to determine the fate of the largest national accreditor this fall. In June, staff at the Department of Education as well as an appointed panel of private individuals recommended terminating federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. Now, a senior official in the Department has to decide whether to go through with the recommendation.
The stakes here are quite high. Colleges must receive accreditation in order to get access to the federal financial aid programs. But this is only true if they are approved by an accreditor that is in turn recognized by the Department of Education. If the senior department official ultimately decides that ACICS should lose federal recognition, the schools it oversees will have 18 months to find a new accreditor or else lose access to federal financial aid.
Well EQUIP-ped. While the department works to determine the fate of one accreditor, it’s also thinking about ways to create entirely new forms of quality assurance. The highest profile of these is the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships experiment, also known as EQUIP. Under this proposal, the department invited eight applicants on August 16 to move forward with proposals to provide federal financial aid to programs previously unable for such support. Each partnership includes at least one established college or university, a new educational partner and a new third-party that will oversee the quality of the new programs.
For example, the University of Texas at Austin will work with MakerSquare to offer a short-term certificate in web development. Entangled Solutions, a private company that does consulting and program design for higher education, will help set standards, and a private auditing firm will verify them. The eight projects chosen under EQUIP are now working to receive necessary approvals from their existing accreditation agencies and may get going this fall or winter.
Flailing for-profits. The department recently levied much-needed sanctions against ITT Technical Institutes, which resulted in the deeply distressed for-profit college finally closing its doors. It’s possible the department could still take action against other for-profits. For example, the department questioned DeVry’s past claims about job placement rates in early 2016. But even if it does not sanction any other for-profit colleges, the department will at the very least likely need to approve or reject a proposal to sell the University of Phoenix to a group of private investors. This will be particularly interesting because one of Phoenix’s proposed purchasers is former Deputy Secretary Tony Miller.
New data. Last fall, the department released the College Scorecard, a massive release of new information about earnings, repayment and debt levels among students who received federal aid, among many other indicators. The department has said it will update the Scorecard, but when and what that might mean are unclear. But there will be new higher education data regardless through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Sometime this fall or early winter it will likely release brand new data on graduation rates, which include data on students who enrolled part-time or transferred. These data will shed light on outcomes for a large number of students that are not currently captured by traditional graduation rates.
Hopefully the summer was restful, the fall likely won’t be. The areas outlined above are quite a full agenda for less than half a year of work. And this does not even include anything related to the election, the congressional appropriations cycle or unknown announcements. Hopefully everyone got a lot of rest this summer, because the fall looks like it will be full speed ahead.
Ben Miller is the senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.