Today the Department of Education (DOE) will finalize a new set of regulations that have many private colleges and universities concerned and religious institutions downright alarmed. Formulated in response to allegations of financial-aid fraud at some for-profit institutions, these 80-odd pages of rules contain 14 different directives, one of which could provide a back-door threat to the ability of Christian colleges to control curriculum, admissions, and hiring standards. (Another rule, requiring for-profit universities to demonstrate a minimal rate of post-graduate employment, has been delayed after it drew protests.)
The directive, mandated for implementation by July 1, 2011, asks states to develop a procedure (if they don't already have one) to license private educational institutions. The procedure must be a "substantive" one, and if schools do not comply the states are required to take "adverse action" against the institutions. (Under current law, as long as a school is approved by a federally recognized accreditor and is allowed to operate in a particular state, that school will be eligible to receive Title IV financial aid for its students.)
The new rule threatens to introduce another layer of bureaucracy to higher education. And while some states will probably exercise restraint in implementing new rules for universities, the concern is that others may not.
As Hank Brown, former president of the University of Colorado, and Bill Armstrong, president of Colorado Christian University, wrote in a recent op-ed in The Denver Post, "Who can doubt that various interest groups will soon begin to clamor for ideas to be mandated by law as requirements for college classrooms?" Armstrong said in an interview that the new regulations "could set the stage for the renewal of the culture wars" as various groups clamor to determine the content of the curriculum. Should states be involved, Armstrong asks, "in whether colleges teach evolution or intelligent design, or whether a family is a man and a woman or two men?"
Indeed, some states already impose a religious test in deciding which educational institutions receive funds from state coffers. Students at Houghton College and Nyack College, both in New York, are ineligible to receive certain state financial aid because the schools are considered "pervasively sectarian." So it would be easy to imagine states imposing similar tests for federal financial aid if they were made gatekeepers.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education (which represents over 2,000 schools that are public and private, for-profit and nonprofit), says he understands the government's desire to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure educational quality, but he worries that "state bureaucrats will use the new authority to go well beyond these mandates" and "get into the business of judging curriculum, student admissions, and faculty hiring."
For religious schools that often have particular approaches to all three, the implications are unsettling. Paul Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, wrote in an email that new state regulations "could inadvertently or intentionally be especially onerous to our institutions that are trying to incorporate a Christian/biblical worldview in virtually every aspect of our institutional programs."
Organizations like ACE and the CCCU registered their objections during the public comment period over the summer (the directives were published in the Federal Register in June), but no response has been issued from the DOE. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina circulated a letter to his colleagues in the House of Representatives on October 22 asking them to urge the DOE to delay the finalization of the rules. He suggested that the "sweeping regulatory remedies … may compromise the integrity, freedom, and flexibility of private colleges and universities across the country."