Smiling Woman Using Computer In Study Room

If passed, the Supporting Academic Freedom Through Regulatory Relief Act would lift Department of Education regulations seen by some as costly and burdensome.


Legislation Would Repeal DOE Regulations on Colleges and Universities

  • Brenda Scherer
  • 4/29/2015

Twin bills recently introduced in Congress would repeal Department of Education (DOE) regulations that supporters say are costly and burdensome to colleges and universities, especially those in the for-profit sector. HR 970 and S 559 — both called the Supporting Academic Freedom Through Regulatory Relief Act (SAFTRRA) — have been referred to committee and are awaiting further action.

SAFTRRA is similar to HR 2637, which was introduced in 2013 but never came to a vote. Pieces of the new bills affect all of the higher education industry, while others single out for-profit institutions.

“We are encouraging all higher education institutions to read and become familiar with the bills, and to contact their local legislators in the House and Senate to voice opinions on the proposed legislation,” says Brenda Scherer, a higher education manager with CliftonLarsonAllen.

If passed, the laws would repeal three major federal regulations that have been in force since 2014:

State authorization

The proposed laws eliminate the definitions imposed by the DOE that determine when an institution is considered to be legally authorized by a state to provide an educational program beyond secondary education in a state in which the institution is physically located. The bills’ sponsors believe that the individual state, not the DOE, should decide when an institution is legally authorized to operate within its borders, whether as a brick and mortar facility or online.

Definition of credit hour

The legislation would eliminate the federal definition of a credit hour, allowing state, private, and for-profit institutions to establish their own standards. Federal regulations currently define a semester or trimester credit hour as one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction, and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work per week for approximately 15 weeks. For a quarter hour of credit, the in-class instruction and out-of-class work must be for 10 to 12 weeks, or the same amount of work over a different period of time.

The DOE also defines a credit hour as an amount of work equal to that required for other academic activities, including laboratory work, internships, practica, studio work, and other academic work.

Gainful employment

The SAFTRRA would end the government requirement that institutions obtain federal approval before offering new educational programs, along with the notice and application procedures related to offering those programs.

In addition, the law would repeal reporting and disclosure requirements for programs that prepare students for “gainful employment” in a recognized occupation, and certain loan repayment and debt-to-earnings ratios that must be met for a program to be eligible.

Gainful employment requirements date back to 2011, when they were first applied to for-profit schools and certificate programs at public and nonprofit universities. A lawsuit filed by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities overturned the rules, but they were revised and issued again by the DOE in 2014.

The bill would also amend restrictions on third party recruitment services and establish specific criteria for when recruiters can be paid.

Under the new law, the secretary of education would be prohibited from declaring or enforcing any regulation related to these items until the enactment of a law extending the Higher Education Act of 1965 by not less than two fiscal years.