Robert Holland: Colleges are Obama's next takeover target

A proposed federal rule change barreling toward U.S. Department of Education approval could make all of higher education—private and public colleges alike—the newest prize in the Obama administration’s trophy case of federal takeovers.

And the deal could be done by the first of November, just ahead of the midterm elections.

Until recently, the higher-ed power grab was chugging along the bureaucratic tracks with scant notice, buried in the fine print of a rulemaking change posted in the June 18 edition of the Federal Register. A few whistleblowers have called attention to it, but it is not clear they can muster enough interest or clout in time to derail this draconian proposal.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants all colleges and universities to be required to obtain a license from a state agency that would keep a list of all “authorized” institutions. The state agencies, in turn, would be under federal supervision.

This would render colleges no longer accountable to largely independent, regional accreditation agencies such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and would instead make all their activities subject to government dictates.

Both public and private colleges already must obtain a variety of business licenses to operate. The new rule would go far beyond that by requiring the state agencies “to take an active role in approving an institution and monitoring complaints from the public about its operations and responding appropriately.”

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, now president of Colorado Christian University, has been one of the most vocal critics of this power play. He wrote a letter to Duncan July 30 warning of an “all-out politicization of American higher education, endangering academic freedom, due process, and First Amendment rights.”

In a September 20 Denver Post op-ed piece, Armstrong and another former U.S. Senator from Colorado, Hank Brown, argued the proposed new system “carries with it an implicit invitation for various pressure groups to seek legal mandates requiring colleges and universities to implement their pet theories about curriculum, degree requirements, faculty qualifications, teaching methods, textbooks, evolution, phonics, ROTC, climate change, family policy, abortion, race, sexual orientation, economic theory. …”

The health care bill—which, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said, had to pass before the public could know its contents—triggered part one of the federal takeover of higher ed. Tucked inside the belly of the Obamacare beast was an unrelated provision that all student loans henceforth must come from the U.S. Department of Education; private lenders are out of the loop.

The pending part two is much more encompassing—and more insidious given that it is being done with bureaucratic language not subject to congressional review.

So where are the liberal elites of higher education—the Harvards and UC-Berkeleys—who should be expected to decry this statist infringement on academic freedom? The closest thing to a squawk came from the American Council on Education in a rather tame 17-page letter dated August 3. The ACE, which claims to represent 70 higher-education associations, warned of “the breadth and the heavy compliance burdens [the rule change] will impose.”

The ACE was perhaps most perturbed by DOE’s bid to enact a federal definition of “credit hour” because it would “intrude into areas of academic decision-making” and make life difficult for accreditors in determining whether a college’s assignment of credit met federal specifications.

Granted, the prospect of federal paper-pushers ruling on credit hours is absurd, but far more important issues are at stake, such as whether a private higher education sector can continue to exist when government agencies take control over everything from the private colleges’ curricula to their reading lists to their admission policies.

Since academe overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008, it may be the big-name institutions feel themselves immune from the consequences of the administration adding higher education to its takeover trophies case, alongside the auto industry, financial institutions, health care, and (soon) K-12 education via national standards and Race to the Top bribes.

Their perspective might change, however, if a future conservative administration ever sought to use its regulatory power to purge higher education of its liberal bias.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute in Chicago.

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