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The regulatory juggernaut

Rules-of-the-road are essential for safe travel. One of the purposes of law is to enable individuals and societies to live just and well-ordered lives.
In recent years, regulation of higher education has exploded. There are real questions whether regulations can or do achieve their purpose. Can you regulate your way to better learning? Often there are multiple purposes and multiple expected outcomes from a single regulation. For example, the federal government is seeking to impose a single definition of “credit hour” on colleges and universities. One stated purpose of this regulation is administrative convenience, helping the Department of Education to ascertain that students awarded financial aid are having an educational experience comparable to the millions of other aid recipients. However, it is clear that “seat time” does not measure whether teaching and learning have taken place. In an era of on-line education, students learn at their own pace and skills and abilities are assessed, not assumed.
Whether particular regulations are needed and effective and efficient is subject to debate. However there is no question that the regulatory burden and the cost of compliance is burgeoning. Hartwick College in New York undertook a landmark study of the cost of compliance. They found that 100 of their employees worked on compliance for 7200 hours annually at a cost of $300,000 per year. Vanderbilt University documented $150 million in annual compliance costs. Approximately $117 million of that amount was attributable to funded research, but other non-research education-specific regulations cost over $14 million a year. These two private, nonprofit colleges and universities —like WAICU members—receive no direct operating support from the taxpayers. Therefore, the cost of regulations are added on to tuition or come at the expense of teaching and learning or of institutional student aid (scholarships).
Please be clear: colleges and universities are not looking for an excuse for abuse. We take seriously our moral and legal commitments. Our reputation is built on quality. We do not look to be evasive, but we are looking for a ways to be compliant that are economical, efficient, and effective.
An important first step was the WAICU Compliance Summit on August 3 and 4. Over 150 staff drawn from WAICU membership spent two intense days reviewing thousands of regulations, identifying major “pain points” (high risk, high probability compliance challenges), and a preliminary list of suggestions for collaborative compliance programs which could be organized by WAICU.
WAICU staff, led by senior vice president for collaborative services Rod Opsal, will take what we heard from our members and begin the due diligence and feasibility studies necessary for us to move forward. Based on the overwhelming success of the WAICU Environmental Health and Safety Peer Self Audit program I believe we can do good by doing well.
We also need to be realistic. In just the area of financial aid administration there are over 7000 rules with an average of a new “dear colleague” letter being issued every day of the year. Compliance is not a challenge that can be addressed once and for all, but neither is a quality education. Every year there is new knowledge and a new group of students committed to our care. Compliance too fits in the WAICU mission, “working together for educational opportunity.”
Rolf Wegenke, Ph.D.