​It's time to rethink higher ed regulations to better serve today's students


Federal regulations may seem like an arcane process, far removed from the day-to-day mission of teaching, learning and running today’s colleges and universities. But the recent report by the Department of Education’s Inspector General (IG) — concluding that Western Governors University should repay over $700 million in federal financial aid and no longer be eligible for fututre federal financial aid — highlights an important point: We are still operating within a policy framework designed primarily to serve the needs of students and institutions of the past.

The framers of past laws and policies could not have envisioned the millions of parents, working adults, veterans and other learners who now enroll in programs that help them complete their degree based on prior knowledge and credit already earned. Nor could they have foreseen how technology has transformed the way we teach and learn — or how higher education institutions are continuously adapting to a much broader range of student needs.

Make no mistake: Regulations from the Department of Education play an important role in guiding institutions of higher education in how they disburse financial aid loans and Pell grants, require consumer disclosures, protect students from potentially fraudulent or unsafe conditions, and ensure institutions are held to academic standards.

That’s not to say the existing regulatory regime we have is perfect — or completely aligned with the imperatives of skill attainment and student success. Current regulations are written to protect students’ and taxpayers’ interests, yes, but can also inadvertently hold back innovation and change.

To meet the needs of today’s students and drive increased student success, policymakers need a new framework that redesigns federal higher education policies with a set goal in mind: Does this set of requirements, both in law and in regulation, support success for all students, including those who do not fit the traditional picture of a “college student”?

Consider the case of WGU, an online university. The Education Department IG’s findings were grounded in an interpretation of the Higher Education Act and related regulations that require higher education institutions receiving financial aid to provide students with “regular and substantive interaction.” In other words, the Department’s IG believes that because students at WGU don’t sit in a classroom with a faculty member, and instead self-pace their learning — through online assessment, curriculum, coaching and instruction — they fail to meet the law’s requirements of providing a substantive education to its students.

While the Department of Education has already signaled its support for WGU and competency-based education, there is need to pay attention to this and other regulatory issues out of step with the realities of higher education today.

The current “regular and substantive” requirement legally binds the federal government to a policy that doesn’t adequately recognize the technological advancements of the past 20 years, or the possibility that online competency-based education programs like WGU can meet the educational needs of the new demographic majority reflected in today’s student population.

Because this approach counts past educational experiences and knowledge as progress toward a degree and enables students to learn new skills at their own pace, competency-based education shows particular promise for reskilling and providing continuing education for adults and the 31 million Americans who already have some college credit, but no credential.

That doesn’t mean the regular and substantive requirement should be replaced with a black hole. Instead, students need a system that acknowledges and supports models that operate in a variety of settings, using a wide range of models — so long as they can demonstrate that they achieve high-quality student outcomes and learning and are held to those expectations.

High-quality and meaningful learning is happening through an ever-growing range of options; policies like regular and substantive rely on what has fast become a narrow and dated standard of how learning can happen. It’s clear we need a system that can prioritize both quality assurance and evolving delivery models. To close the looming gap between postsecondary attainment and workforce needs, policy needs to catch up with these realities — reforming the nation’s higher education regulations and laws can help.

Julie Peller is the executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a nonprofit organization launched in 2017 to advocate for a new system of higher learning focused on quality, student outcomes and innovation.