U.S. Department of Education Plans to Overhaul Several College Accreditation Rules

On July 30, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced plans to rewrite several rules concerning the regulation of colleges, universities, and their respective accrediting agencies. In stark contrast to education policy under former President Barack Obama, the proposed changes would loosen federal oversight of these institutions. According to the Trump administration, the goal of such reforms is to encourage greater innovation in the higher education sector.

To achieve these goals, a group of higher education experts and stakeholders appointed by the Education Department will convene for a rule-making session in 2019. The group will be charged with considering ways to loosen the expectations of college crediting agencies, which currently play a pivotal role in determining which schools receive federal funds. According to DeVos, federal scrutiny of accreditors has prevented these organizations from approving new and innovative educational models that have the potential to benefit nontraditional students.

Furthermore, instead of requiring accreditors to track institutional outcomes — such as graduates’ employment rates and average earnings — the Education Department will collect this type of data on specific degree programs across all colleges and universities. The results will be available as part of an expanded College Scorecard, the online data set compiled by the department to show how well different schools are serving their students.

These new regulations are set to replace the gainful employment rule established under President Barack Obama, which rendered colleges and universities ineligible for federal funding if their graduates did not earn enough money to pay off their student debt. Many congressional Democrats and higher education experts have criticized the decision to do away with the gainful employment rule. They argue that rescinding this law undoes years’ worth of efforts to hold for-profit colleges accountable for defrauding low-income college students.

Another significant change proposed by DeVos is the elimination of a standard definition for a college credit hour. Some college administrators and most accrediting agencies support the move. However, critics worry that letting individual colleges create their own standards for what constitutes a credit hour — or the amount of academic work necessary to earn course credit — could lead to lax course requirements for students. This issue will also be decided during the rule-making session in 2019.

All of these proposed changes come shortly after DeVos announced her intentions to overhaul the Obama-era Borrower Defense to Repayment policy. DeVos says she plans to impose stricter standards for granting student loan forgiveness under this policy by requiring borrowers who claim they were defrauded by for-profit schools to prove that they were intentionally misled about employment opportunities and earnings potential.