Ted Mitchell, under secretary of education, began his speech to a roomful of higher-education leaders on Monday with a conciliatory tone, stressing that the U.S. Department of Education shared a goal with them of serving the public good.

After laying out some details of the department’s major policy proposals, Mr. Mitchell invited the audience to tell him how the federal government was impeding new and more-effective approaches in higher education.

He got an earful from the attendees, mostly college presidents from members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which is holding its annual meeting here this week.
The Education Department’s own regulatory actions—its "regulatory culture"—are the principal impediments to innovation, said George A. Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State College, in New Jersey.

Mr. Pruitt and others cited, in particular, several rules meant to crack down on perceived abuses by for-profit colleges that rely primarily on distance learning. Those regulations include one strictly tying the credit hour to time spent in class, another requiring colleges to be authorized in every state where they enroll students, and one that evaluates the earnings of a college’s graduates in proportion to their amount of student debt.

Those rules may have been meant primarily for proprietary colleges, but they are having a negative impact on all sectors of higher education, Mr. Pruitt argued, and they reflect a view that makes compliance a priority over quality assurance.

"I understand that you get upset if your dog soils the carpet," he said, "but you don't go out and shoot your horse for that."

Eduardo M. Ochoa, president of California State University-Monterey Bay, said the problem lay with the department’s Office of Inspector General, which has pushed the department to adopt such rules in the face of negative scrutiny for both colleges and accreditors.

"When will the department see fit to overrule the inspector general?," asked Mr. Ochoa, who served as assistant secretary for postsecondary education from 2010 to 2012.

Several college presidents also raised questions about the department's proposed ratings system for colleges.

Ricardo Azziz, president of Georgia Regents University, asked Mr. Mitchell how the department would prevent the ratings from being misused as a rankings system.

Mr. Mitchell said he couldn't answer "precisely," but he promised that the department was considering several ways to guard against that possibility.

A broader concern from college presidents at the meeting was that the metrics in the ratings system would put at a disadvantage colleges that enroll many low-income, minority, or first-generation students.

For his part, Mr. Mitchell tried to reassure the college leaders that the department was working to be more cooperative, citing experimental programs to test approaches like competency-based education and credit for prior learning.

"We're helping to create space for innovation," Mr. Mitchell said.

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