In Defense of More “Extreme” Higher Education Policy Changes from the US Department of Education

In a March 30, 2018 article written by Jared Cameron Bass, Amy Laitinen, and Clare McCann; they offer a critique of what they clearly see as unnecessary and extreme moves toward deregulation from the current US Department of Education administration. In particular, they focus upon four policy areas of import for higher education: state authorization, the credit hour, accreditation, and the current definition of “regular and substantive interaction” in distance education programs. In each case, the authors point out their concerns about the direction that the US Department of Education is going, calling for a less extreme tweak or refinement of current policy instead of completely removing a policy and/or starting from scratch.

I encourage you to read this initial article for yourself, as the following remarks are, at least in part, an alternative view on key themes from that article. As I read it, I found myself trying to document what seemed to be the stated or underlying assumptions in the article. While I welcome clarification or correction, here are nine themes that seemed to emerge from my reading.

  1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.
  2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.
  3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.
  4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.
  5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.
  6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?
  7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.
  8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.
  9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

This is one person’s framing and understanding of the positions in the article, but regardless, I use these nine statements as a launchpad for my reflection on the the need for more significant, even extreme, policy changes.

1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.

This is always a good and important caution when it comes to policy reform. As I often write, there are always affordances and limitations to policies. With each policy there are winners and losers. It just seems like the authors of the article are representing a view that the current policies do not have serious enough limitations or they are not flawed enough to warrant more extreme interventions. If we were talking about a home remodel, they seem to be arguing for painting the walls and rearranging the furniture a bit, but not going to the extreme of taking out walls, addressing structural issues, adding new flooring, and getting brand new furniture. Only some of us have been living in that house and we know that there is a termite infestation, the furniture is filthy, there are concerns about how long the roof will last, and it is preventing us from the quality of life that we seek. As such, there is a genuine difference of opinion about the status of the current policies. I am well aware of abuses that the credit hour policy prevents, as well as the “regular and substantive interaction” stipulation for distance education programs. They are protecting against abuse, but at the same time, they are holding us back from countless promising practices and innovations. They are also putting higher education institutions at a disadvantage against those non-regulated providers of emerging education.

2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.

Again, it is good to caution us about mindless changes or not considering the background and context. However, that does not mean that we should disregard the potential benefit of starting from scratch. The history also reveals a great deal of baggage and people harmed by current policies. Even more, there is an opportunity loss that has come from the extreme and narrow parameters of countless currrent policies.

3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.

To be fair, the authors did not explicitly state this. They just didn’t recognize it as a factor either. When you are a smaller higher education institution, it is no small factor when you find yourself having to devote multiple FTEs year round or during certain times of the year just to comply with the countless policies. That takes money away from other more immediate needs. In fact, the current policy landscape has been a boon for companies and consultants who are using the complexities to essentially scare institutions into paying for their help and participation. More accurately, these companies don’t do the scaring. They just offer to help protect people from the fears and threats associated with what some external entity might define as a regulatory infraction.

4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.

I can’t imagine that the authors would agree with this as stated, but I worry that this sentiment is present in their proposed approach.

At one point, the article references a letter that allegedly represented the collective voice and viewpoint of “the distance education community.” I’ve been involved with distance education for well over a decade, and that letter does not represent me. This is a growing frustration for me, in fact. The current “winners” are the ones who get consulted the most and those who have secured the public voice and place of influence. Then they invite a few others that the winners deem worthy of including, or they do so to argue that they are being more inclusive. This is coming from a person who has indeed been privileged to work and interact with thought leaders and leading organizations throughout the United States and the world, and yet I consistently find that my input and that of institutions like the one that I serve have not been a welcome part of past policy decisions. Over the past decade, at least from my vantage point, they have a handful of their favorite thinkers and voices, and they certainly did not represent the larger higher education ecosystem or the breadth of philosophies and ideals represented in that ecosystem.

5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.

Here is my greatest concern with the proposal that we be content simply tweaking the current system. Just spend one day researching the breadth of educational innovations today. Then consider how many potentially beneficial efforts are inhibited by the current policies. Apart from some of the largely narrow innovative practices in CBE, much of distance education has been stagnant for almost 25 years. That is policy induced stagnation. Those in distance education are persistently forced into a narrow set of practices that comply with the given policies, thus abandoning or never fully pursuing practices that have promise. The policies have become dictators of “best practice” that don’t even allow for efforts that might reveal new promising practices. Even worse, the policies are created to prevent certain abuses without adequate or even reasonable consideration for the realities and opportunities of 21st century learning…or 17th-20th century learning for that matter.

6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?

Yes, we are managing to comply, but it has taken a ton of money and human resources from institutions that are working hard to keep costs down for students while providing a great learning experience. In addition, it took a massive and expensive national consortium effort to help mitigate the incredibly problematic regulations from state to state. When it takes that large of an effort to just figure out a way that institutions can “manage to comply”, that is a sign of poorly defined policy. As it stands, there is a membership fee to be pat of the National Council for State Authorization and Reciprocity Agreements, and then, individual states can charge extra as well. This might seem like small money to massive institutions, but there are plenty of IHEs that are only talking about serving a few (yes, literally 2 or 3) students in a given state. Yet, that state might charge the institution as much as $5000 or $10,000 to do so. My point is simply that institutions are managing, but it is not without opportunity, time, and money lost.

7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.

I happen to serve at an institution that was one of the first 20 welcomed into the Competency-based Education Network. I quickly discovered that an immense amount of the effort was focused upon how to structure things so that we could be in compliance. That is a horrible way to produce the best results, at least when the policy is so mis-informed in the first place. So yes, the CBE programs that have a voice at the table are finding ways to work within the current policies. That is just because all the other voices are not at the table, they have been silenced or ignored (even if at the table), or they represent promising approaches to CBE that never launched because of regulatory challenges. I do not write on behalf of my institution, but I can say that I am keenly aware of institutions that went through two or more years of confused external regulatory exchanges, only to end the conversations with a decision to back off on even trying, or a lack of clarity about what was even expected or required from external agencies. This is fertile soil for mediocrity and a lack of innovation.

8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.

Turning accreditors into police will only create more winners and losers in the higher education space. There is already mass inequity. I’ve spoken to people at elite institutions where some faculty do not even create syllabi with learning objectives for their courses, and they go through accreditation with flying colors. These are sometimes the very institutions from which influencers on education policies graduate or teach/research. Some of the leading voices in education policy, higher education scholars, are the first to demand almost complete autonomy in how and what they teach, and yet they publish about the need to be tougher on those “other” institutions. It is a deeply flawed system.

One colleague explained it this way. At some Universities, we put on ties and suits for accreditors. In other institutions, the accreditors put on suits and ties to visit (yes, a bit of a male-centric way of describing it, but you get the idea). Regional accreditation is a peer review process that, at its best, provides a venue for higher education institutions to give useful insights and feedback on how to grow and improve. Only it can quickly turn into a policing toward the status quo and the dominant or preferred practices of the day. There are better ways to do this that allow more leeway for true innovation (even of the disruptive sort) while also keeping egregious abuses in check. Only we are wise to consider that an “abuse” to one person could be an incredible innovation to another. The current standards used to offer feedback by various regional accreditors are often too narrow, honoring a rather narrow set of beliefs and philosophies of education. Yet, only certain institutions feel especially bound by these agencies.

Yet, the greater problem is that the DOE justification for getting involved with regional accreditors is because they need to protect their financial investments. It has everything to do with money and very little to do with the best interest of the students. It has led to a spiraling debate and drive toward increasingly narrow definitions of what is defined as a good higher education experience. This entire relationship between the DOE and accreditors (and accreditors to individual IHEs) could benefit from a complete overhaul.

9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

Yes, there is an important history, and that history is part of what calls us to consider completely new policies. The current wording doesn’t even reflect the reality of many face-to-face programs today. Consider a PhD student doing largely independent research for years, maybe only meeting with her advisor for 15-20 minutes a week. That is outside the philosophical boundaries of the current policy. The UK doctorate or degree by research is excluded in the US on the basis of this current policy. Student internships could be arguably outside of this policy. There are countless other teaching and learning approaches that we would have to stretch to fit into the expectations of this and other policies. I contend that this justifies a more fundamental rewriting of policy, not just a tweak to the current system.

As a reminder, this is largely a response and reflection to the New America article called The Department of Deregulation. As much as I critique it here, I am grateful that it was written and published. There are important cautions about considering affordances and limitations, looking at history and context, and not being too quick to start deregulating. These are all good and important points. We must move with wisdom and careful consideration, but we must move, and that is my argument. I am not satisfied with the “just paint the walls a new color” approach to higher education policy remodels. The problems of current policies are too significant for that.

Posted in blog, education, education policy, higher education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

3 Replies to “In Defense of More “Extreme” Higher Education Policy Changes from the US Department of Education”

  1. Robert Columbia

    Thanks for mentioning compliance when you mentioned “an immense amount of the effort was focused upon how to structure things so that we could be in compliance”.

    Compliance seems to be one of those big elephants in the room that no one can seem to agree on how to handle.

    How do we move away from compliance as a needed evil to a tool that actually *helps* us and provides *value*? Is this something that is possible or is “compliance” going to always remain a value-subtracting activity?

  2. tomsmcdonald

    Thanks for putting some common sense, validated research and best practices into the conversation. More of the flawed same is NOT what the research and best practices reflect, when the objective is to advance relevant, student success performance improvement outcomes for all students

  3. Michael Dietz

    Very thoughtful discussion of the issues. Specifically, the equity and inequity issues raised are on point. At some point with all of this there needs to be a reasonable test applied to all of this. Thanks for raising the 9 themes and for the discussion of them.

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