Universities press Congress for fewer rules

Feds require colleges to craft policies on dorm-room candle use

Some of the nation's top university officials, including the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, are calling on Congress to roll back what they see as a byzantine and ever-expanding system of federal regulations that is costing schools millions of dollars each year.

From the complicated forms prospective students must submit to receive tuition aid to requirements that universities adopt policies governing the use of candles in dorm rooms, the officials said, they are swimming in thousands of pages of rules that take millions of hours annually to sort through.

"Many regulations are well conceived," Maryland Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions during a hearing Tuesday.

"On the other hand, we also discovered that too many regulations are overly complex, confusing to both students and the institutions and result in costly compliance efforts."

The effort by Kirwan and others is facing resistance from some consumer and student groups, who note that the nation's colleges and universities receive more than $160 billion in federal money each year in the form of financial aid and who argue the regulations safeguard that investment.

Some critics object to proposals to alter public safety requirements, such as rules that govern the notification of students about campus threats.

"It's very easy to say 'Do away with regulations and leave colleges alone,'" Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, said in an interview.

"But that belies the fact that students are increasingly at risk, given how much debt they're taking on and how important a college education is."

Kirwan, who announced last year that he would retire this summer, co-chaired a task force on the federal regulation of universities created by a bipartisan group of senators that included Maryland's Barbara A. Mikulski. The group of 16 college and university leaders spent more than a year developing a report they released this month.

Republicans in Congress have long criticized federal regulations as a detriment to economic growth, and they have been particularly disapproving of agency rules crafted under the Obama administration. But in this instance, some Democrats also appear to support the general principle that higher education institutions might be tangled in too much red tape.

Mikulski said some regulations "are either outdated or get in the way of each other." The Maryland Democrat, a senior member of the HELP committee, said the task force report offers a "road map on how we can improve quality."

The 144-page document cites dozens of regulations university officials consider onerous, such as requirements that families applying for federal financial aid submit tax returns before they are due to the Internal Revenue Service. Another regulation requires universities to refund unused portions of federal aid for students who withdraw from classes — which Kirwan said can be difficult to assess in many cases.

Colleges and universities are required to implement policies on illegal file-sharing on music and movie sites and to inform students of copyright laws. And federal law mandates that schools disclose the number of supervised fire drills performed as well as policies on open flames, such as candles in dorm rooms.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee and an education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, described the regulations as evidence of a "sloppy, inefficient government that wastes money." Alexander said he hoped many of the provisions could be addressed if Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act later this year.

The 50-year-old act, which sets the parameters for federal financial aid programs, was set to expire in 2013 but was extended through the end of this year.

"Such waste should be an embarrassment to all of us in the federal government," he said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Johns Hopkins University also declined to comment on Tuesday's hearing.

Some proposals in the task force report are more controversial than others.

The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women called attention to a section suggesting that universities should not be required to collect data on stalking, domestic violence and dating violence because they are not defined in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report program.

"We are alarmed … that the task force's report suggests that current federal regulations and policies governing the response of [universities] to crimes predominantly affecting women students are too burdensome or complex," the group wrote in a statement. "We cannot stress enough that now is not the time to lessen federal oversight designed to protect students from violence."

In Maryland, Hopkins, Morgan State University and Frostburg State University were investigated by federal authorities last year over the alleged mishandling of reported sexual assaults.

Kirwan said it was difficult to say how much, precisely, regulations cost colleges and universities. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that 11 percent, or $150 million of the school's 2013 expenditures, was spent on federal compliance.

In one of the more compelling exchanges during Tuesday's hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, pressed Kirwan and Vanderbilt chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos on whether the schools would use the savings from reduced regulations to lower tuition for students.

"If we're going to talk about reducing those regulations, this is one place where the federal government could use its leverage ... to bring down those costs for students," said Warren, a former Harvard Law professor. "We'd just like to know that the savings are going to be passed on to the students."

Kirwan said schools might consider using some of the savings for need-based financial aid, but suggested that universities wouldn't necessarily want to commit to using all savings to reduce tuition.

"There are areas at the institution that are not adequately invested in because of lack of funds," he said. "We have lot of things we're trying to do as an institution."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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