Thursday, September 10, 2015

Costs of Regulation: Higher Education Edition

As a social scientist, I'm predisposed to favor collecting and disseminating more information. But a February 2015 Report of the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education, called Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities, offers a useful reminder that producing all that information isn't free.

As background, the task force was created by a bipartisan group of US Senators. It was made up mostly of presidents and chancellors and top executives from a range of higher education institutions, including the University of Maryland, Vanderbilt University, Colorado Christian University,University of Colorado, Hiram College, Hartwick College, Sam Houston State University, California Community College, Laureate Online Education, American University, Rasmussen College, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, University of North Carolina, and Northern Virginia Community College.

As you might expect from such an authorship, the report includes lots of terms like consolidate, promulgate, problematic, and process improvements. But more to my taste, the report also has some intriguing big-picture estimates and vivid examples. For example, one estimate is that costs of compliance with federal rules represent more than 10% of total costs at a major university:
Another far-reaching analysis was launched by Vanderbilt University in 2014. Initial findings reveal that approximately 11 percent, or $150 million, of Vanderbilt’s 2013 expenditures were devoted to compliance with federal mandates. Nearly 70 percent of these costs were absorbed into different offices, affecting a broad swath of faculty, research staff, administrative staff, and trainees in academic departments. Vanderbilt is currently working with other institutions to test its methodology on different campuses.
The report laments that federal regulatory burdens on institutions of higher education keep rising, that the process for judging whether institutions are complying with these burdens is often capricious and costly as well, and that in many cases the rules have little to do with actually educating students. Here's a taste of the discussion:
Two examples highlight the increasing complexity of the Department of Education’s reach. First, in the early 1950s, accrediting agencies qualified for recognition by the U.S. Office of Education by meeting five straightforward criteria. Today, however, statutory requirements fill nine pages of the HEA, and the Department’s application for agencies seeking recognition has expanded to 88 pages. Any agency that seeks initial or renewed recognition must expect to devote several person years to filing the appropriate federal paperwork. Another example is the expansion of data collection mandates imposed on colleges and universities. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Survey (IPEDS) was first implemented as a voluntary activity in 1985-86. Today, participation in IPEDS is mandatory and requires completion of nine separate surveys that together exceed 300 pages. ...
Higher education institutions are subject to a massive amount of federal statutory, regulatory, and sub-regulatory requirements, stemming from virtually every federal agency and totaling thousands of pages. Focusing solely on requirements involving the Department of Education, the HEA contains roughly 1,000 pages of statutory language; the associated rules in the Code of Federal Regulations add another 1,000 pages. Institutions are also subject to thousands of pages of additional requirements in the form of sub-regulatory guidance issued by the Department. For example, the Department’s 2013-14 Federal Student Aid Handbook, a guidebook for administering student aid that amplifies and clarifies the formal regulations, is more than 1,050 pages. The Department’s Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting (also known as the “Clery Handbook”) contains approximately 300 pages, and will soon expand significantly in light of new regulations issued in 2014. In 2012 alone, the Department released approximately 270 “Dear Colleague” letters and other electronic announcements—this means that more than one new directive or clarification was issued every working day of the year. ...
Among the many federal rules with which colleges and universities must comply, information disclosure mandates are particularly voluminous. Section 485 of the HEA, which details institutional disclosures on a host of issues, runs some 30 pages of legislative text and includes 22 separate “information dissemination” requirements. ... The Federal Student Aid office at the Department publishes a summary chart of the various consumer information disclosures. Although this chart is designed to provide consumer disclosures “At-a-Glance,” it is currently 31 pages long. Between crime reporting and policy disclosures, the Clery Act and related departmental guidance require more than 90 separate policy statements and disclosures. In sum, the sheer number of regulatory provisions that affects institutions of higher education constitutes a voluminous and expanding burden.

In a number of cases, attempts to define a certain rule never seem to end, but instead only lead to more rules. For example, consider the rules for disclosing whether vocationally-oriented programs lead to "gainful employment":
[W]ith respect to gainful employment, the Department first issued a complex and lengthy set of rules on this topic in 2010. However, following a court challenge that struck down the Department’s proposed metrics for judging gainful employment programs, it began a new negotiated rulemaking session. Final regulations stemming from this second effort were issued in October 2014. The 2014 final rule is almost 950 pages long, including a 610-page preamble and more than 50 tables and charts. In deciding to proceed with a second rulemaking on this topic, the Department was undeterred by both a federal court decision and by the passage of legislation in the House of Representatives blocking further regulation in this area until Congress considered the issue. 
Or consider the Clery Act, which "requires colleges and universities to report the crimes that occurred on campus in an Annual Security Report. They also must report incidents occurring on “noncampus property,” defined as a building or property owned or controlled by an institution and used in direct support of or in relation to the institution’s educational purpose. However, this broad definition has created enormous confusion," as the report spells out:

Guidance from the Department both in the Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting and subsequent directives indicate that colleges and universities must report crimes that happen in any building or property they rent, lease, or have any written agreement to use (including an informal agreement, such as one that might be found in a letter, email, or hotel confirmation). Even if no payment is involved in the transaction, any written agreement regarding the use of space gives an institution “control” of the space for the time period specified in the agreement. The handbook requires colleges and universities to disclose statistics for crimes that occur during the dates and times specified in the agreement, including the specific area of a building used (e.g., the third floor and common areas leading to the spaces used, such as the lobby, hallways, stairwells, and elevators). Department guidance mandates that schools report on study abroad locations when the school rents space for students in a hotel or other facility, and on locations used by an institution’s athletic teams in successive years (e.g., the institution uses the same hotel every year for the field hockey team’s away games). As a consequence, institutions must attempt to collect crime data from dozens, if not hundreds, of locations ... One institution has indicated that it requests data from 69 police departments, covering 348 locations in 13 states and five countries, including police at airports and on military bases. The mandate that colleges and universities must collect data from foreign entities is particularly troublesome. ... In response to one such request, a foreign government accused a U.S. institution of espionage.

The Task Force also notes that certain substantial federal rules don't have much to do with evaluating education, or with health and safety of students, but the rules were instead enacted for other reasons--while requiring colleges to pay the costs.
However, an increasing amount of federal oversight has little to do with these responsibilities and has more to do with pursuing broader governmental goals. To cite several obvious examples, Selective Service registration, detailed voter registration requirements, peer-to-peer file sharing, and foreign gift reporting are unrelated to the central areas of federal concern in higher education. While the policy objectives are worthwhile, the responsibility for pursuing them should not fall to institutions. We believe, for example, that individuals should be held accountable for whether they register with the Selective Service, not the college or university where they happen to be enrolled. Further, while some rules may be tangentially related to higher education, such as disclosing institutional policies on candles in dormitories and student vaccinations, they are not of sufficiently widespread interest to warrant a federal mandate.
The high costs of federal regulation are clearly a real and substantial issue for higher education, contributing to the very high costs of higher education. But don't forget broaden your view and remember that these kinds of government rules about collecting and providing information are legion across the US economy, too. I do love information, as I said at the start. But it's very easy to come up with reasons why other organizations should collect all kinds of information. Such requirements aren't free.