In an effort to avert fiascos that leave college students in a lurch, the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month began enforcement of a federal requirement for colleges and universities to have complaint systems in place for students.
Many colleges and universities already have complaint systems in place, government sources and observers say. But in light of debacles such as the costly closure of Corinthian Colleges—a for-profit college company that closed and filed for bankruptcy earlier this year amid allegations of fraud—the complaint systems have taken on added importance.
The federal government recently issued loan forgiveness to former Corinthian students—something that could cost taxpayers as much as $3.5 billion.
Jamienne S. Studley, Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said enforcement of the requirement for the complaint systems, which the department has held off on for several years, is an “important step and a timely one” to ensure program integrity. The complaint systems come under the purview of “state authorization” regulations that require colleges and universities to be authorized by states in order to enroll students who get federal financial aid.
“What we hope is that this will be a reminder to states about the part they can play in all of this,” Studley recently told a gathering of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Studley said state attorneys general are using the information they get from the complaint systems to “help pursue opportunities for improvement and cleaning up the system.”
Studley said it will become increasingly important for states, accreditors and the federal government—often referred to as the “triad” when it comes to regulating colleges and universities—to communicate better to prevent costly problems that could hurt students.
“It’s becoming clear that we should see those opportunities to work more closely, and, in these fast-changing times, there is certainly value in improving our coordination, especially when we see warning signs,” Studley said.
Iris Palmer, senior policy analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program, expressed skepticism about whether state agencies would actually apprise the U.S. Department of Education about problematic situations unfolding at colleges and universities in their states.
“Just because states receive a lot of complaints about a particular institution does not mean that they will share that information with ED although they may take action against the institution,” Palmer said. “Because of this, I think there is a large role for the media to obtain and publish the number and, to some extent, the nature of the complaints to inform the public about bad actors.”
Palmer said their complaint requirement is twofold:
First, institutions are supposed to post contacts for their state complaints process and their accreditor “prominently to inform students of their options,” Palmer said.
Second, states also need to have student complaint processes, Palmer said, citing a U.S. Department of Education requirement that states “must have a process applicable to all institutions, except tribal and Federal institutions, to review and appropriately act on complaints concerning the institution, including enforcement of applicable State laws.”
Palmer said the extent to which students are aware of complaint systems—and how well those systems work—“varies from state to state.”
“It is the responsibility of the school to inform the students of their existence, and some schools are doing a pretty good job,” Palmer said. “The level of service the student receives from the state entity is not required under the Department’s regulation and, like everything else across the states, will be good in some states and bad in others.”
The Department of Education does not plan to make a special effort to verify if institutions have complaint systems in place. However, if it is discovered during the normal course of business that an institution does not have a complaint system in place, the institution could lose eligibility to receive federal financial aid known as Title IV funding.
Julie Carnahan, vice president at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, or SHEEO, said she has heard of no complaints from institutions regarding the complaint system requirement. SHEEO membership includes mostly public colleges and universities.
“Our members welcome this,” Carnahan said. “I think they welcome this because this is another tool by which to do their work. We have heard of no pushback.”
Officials at the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities—the trade association for the for-profit college sector—did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at @dcwriter360.