Thanks in part to the more than 150 new rules and regulations which emerged from the current version of the HEOA, higher education in America has never been more expensive, Ebersole writes.

While still wrestling with the many initiatives and regulations spawned by the 2007 renewal of the Higher Education and Opportunity Act (HEOA), it is already time for colleges and universities to start worrying about 2013, and how an updated HEOA could expand — or shrink — online education.

Hopefully, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education will see their coming negotiations as an opportunity, and unlike the current version, will use any new legislation to reduce the cost of education, improve access, and provide incentives for innovation.

Thanks in part to the more than 150 new rules and regulations which emerged from the current version of the HEOA, higher education in America has never been more expensive for students in the traditional lecture hall or the online classroom.

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While many critics would lay the blame for this at the feet of college administrators, Congress and the Obama administration must share in the blame as well. Each new regulation requires more than 4,000 accredited colleges and universities to conduct an analysis, determine applicability, and take appropriate compliance action.

Is it any wonder that administrator payrolls are increasing at double that for faculty?

In one example alone, the need to obtain separate authorization from 54 jurisdictions in order to extend federal financial aid to online students, the costs are expected to run over $500 million per year.

For many online education providers, the results of this requirement is to withdraw from jurisdictions, where requirements are especially costly or onerous, or to discontinue online offerings altogether. Thus, a single department regulation, known as “state authorization,” has increased student costs (as the expense is passed on) and reduced access to higher education.

Federal intimidation of regional accreditors has had a similar dampening effect on the creation of innovative, and cost saving, programs. Institutions attempting to reduce classroom time through adaptive learning methods, and thus instructional costs, run the risk of finding themselves at odds with the regulators.

This is especially true if federal financial aid should flow to students in classes that don’t meet the new federally mandated definition of what constitutes a credit hour. Rather than measure learning outcomes, the Department insists that hours of seat time is a more appropriate measure; another artifact of the last HEOA Reauthorization

It is hoped that those reviewing the Higher Education Act and considering future changes, will keep the cost of regulatory compliance in mind.

Too often, of late, it has seemed that sweeping new federal legislation is introduced because of the actions of a few bad actors. An example can be seen in the recent concern over unscrupulous acts by a handful of for-profit institutions and their misrepresentations to veterans and the military.

Not only did the president intervene with an executive order that creates as many questions as remedies, but five bills have now been introduced in Congress to deal with the same issue.

If implemented, these new rules will apply to all higher education institutions, with a resulting compliance cost, not just to the two or three malefactors.

Future regulation of higher education may be necessary, however, if we are serious about reducing the cost of college we need to not see every problem as a “nail” to be hit by the regulatory “hammer.”

In most cases the powers necessary to resolve genuine abuse already exist, at both the federal and state level.

John Ebersole is the president of Excelsior College, and online institution based in New York.

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