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Senate Report: Higher Ed 'Enmeshed in a Jungle of Red Tape'

A new report, Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities, from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee finds that colleges and universities are "enmeshed in a jungle of red tape" as a result of policies and formal guidance or amendments to those policies produced at a rate of more than one document each work day.

This excessive regulatory burden requires institutions of higher education to "allocate resources to compliance that would be better applied to student education, safety and innovation in instructional delivery," according to the report's authors. "Clearly, a better approach is needed."

Comprising members from across the spectrum of higher education institutions, the task force behind the report was chaired by Chancellors William E. Kirwan of the University System of Maryland and Nicholas S. Zeppos of Vanderbilt University and tasked with three objectives:

  • "Provide specific recommendations to consolidate, streamline and eliminate burdensome, costly and confusing regulations, laws and reporting requirements;
  • Review and quantify the extent of all federal requirements with which institutions must comply, including estimates of the time and costs associated with specific regulations; and
  • Provide recommendations for reform to ensure future regulations are promulgated in a manner that appropriately considers existing law and accurately examines the costs and benefits to taxpayers, institutions and students."

Among the regulatory challenges faced by higher education, according to the task force, are unnecessarily voluminous regulations, the inordinate cost of compliance, overly complex regulations, regulations "unrelated to education, student safety or stewardship of federal funds," an increasing appetite for regulation from the Education Department, slow action from ED, regulations that bar innovation and apparent indifference to the burden of regulation from ED.

Citing a 2014 analysis of regulatory costs at Vanderbilt University, the report points to findings that the university spent $150 million in 2013, or approximately 11 percent of its total expenditures on ensuring compliance with federal requirements.

"Such waste should be an embarrassment to all of us in the federal government," said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, in a statement about the findings of the report.

Recommendations for improvement issued by the task force include:

  • Development of formal regulations at the Department of Education;
  • Implementation of ED regulations with sub-regulatory guidance that does not exceed legislative intent or create new standards or requirements; and
  • Improve enforcement of regulations by, for example, recognizing when institutions are clearly acting in good faith and by acting in a timely fashion to resolve complaints, approve new programs and review programs.

"I have talked with Secretary (Arne) Duncan more than once about this effort and he is eager to do his part to solve the problem," added Alexander. "I look forward to working with him and with President Obama on eliminating unnecessary red tape, saving students money and removing unnecessary regulatory obstacles to innovation in the best system of higher education in the world."
The complete report is available at

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at

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