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Regulation Hurts Higher Education

As globalization demolishes the last remnants of protectionism, America’s best chance of maintaining its standard of living rests not only with the next trade agreement, but also with our unrivaled system of higher education. More than ever, colleges and universities are the engine rooms of our economy. Strengthening these institutions and expanding access to them must be viewed as vital to our broader national interests. That means changing the relationship between the federal government and higher education, which requires cutting back on burdensome regulations imposed on colleges and universities and simplifying the financial aid process for students. The upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is the ideal opportunity to address these issues.

China, India, Singapore and Malaysia — not to mention Japan and Europe — aren’t lacking the brilliant minds who will take advantage of this new era of global competition. What they don’t have is 6,000 autonomous colleges and universities capable of educating and training these minds. The United States has not only some of the best institutions of higher education in the world; it has almost all of them. That’s why well over a half-million foreign students choose to study in America each year.

I was recently in a meeting with former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso, who was concluding his residency at the Library of Congress. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) asked Cardoso what he would remember about the United States. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “The American university, the greatness and autonomy of the American university.”

Yet, that is not the message the federal government sends when it burdens these institutions and their students with needless regulations, frivolous reporting requirements and confusing paperwork. From the smallest college to the largest research university, scarce resources and time are spent wading though the 7,000 regulations found in the Higher Education Act. With the exception of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, every federal agency is involved in regulating some aspect of higher education.

In the late 1990s, Stanford President Gerhard Casper reported that his university was spending 7 cents of every tuition dollar on compliance with government regulations. That’s money he wasn’t spending on students or research, instead it was just so he could send Washington D.C. an accurate count of full-time employees with dental insurance and the number of meals Stanford counts towards its “board” charge.

If our mutually agreed upon goal is the education of the American populace, then it’s time for the federal government to approach colleges and universities as partners and collaborators — as fellow travelers on this new global journey. To that end, I’ve proposed creating an expert panel to review Department of Education regulations and recommend to Congress how those rules might be streamlined or better yet, eliminated.

One easy step the United States could take right now would be the creation of a compliance calendar, a tailored checklist that would inform universities of the specific requirements they are expected to meet and by what deadline. That way, institutions would no longer have to spend countless hours deciphering which of the 7,000 regulations apply to them. The burden would be on the federal government to tell them.

Ultimately, the creation of a globally competitive work force depends on the federal government’s ability to rethink how it views students. Sixty percent of our college and university students use a federal grant or loan to pay their expenses, but the typical freshman is no longer a fresh-scrubbed teenager. More often these days, the cry you hear from the audience at a graduation is, “Way to go, Mom!” Parents are going back to community colleges, trade schools and universities to get the skills they need to succeed in our rapidly changing economy. In 1970, 28 percent of the nation’s 7.4 million students were enrolled part time; today, that number is 39 percent out of a total of 12.7 million students. Nearly half of these women and men are enrolled in two-year colleges.

The number of college students has climbed significantly in the last three decades, but the federal government can do more to improve access to make it easier for families to apply for grants and loans. Some of you may have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. The FAFSA form is daunting to even the most savvy, educated consumer, never mind the high school student or the harried working parent. Let’s start by making it easier for people to understand what the government is talking about. Let’s simplify the name. Then, the Department of Education should reduce the 100-plus questions posed by the application, many of them required only for residents of certain states.

We also need to recognize that the school calendar no longer begins in September and ends in May. Our changing student population demands that federal financial aid be accessible year-round, which is why I’ve proposed adding flexibility to the Pell Grants program. Working parents, part-time students, and workers going back for retraining don’t take the summer off and neither should their financial aid.

After World War II, the federal government wisely created the GI Bill of Rights that allowed veterans to study at any accredited institution. The soldier chose the school — the high school they left behind, a state university, or the Ivy League — and Uncle Sam footed the bill. But after that, the government got out of the way. It didn’t tell colleges and universities how to do what they do best. This flexibility and autonomy flooded the education marketplace with new dollars and new incentives to compete for students. Many institutions set very high standards in response. These are the factors that fueled the American higher education success story. And these same factors will ensure our continued success in this new era of extreme global competition.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on education and early childhood development.

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