Christian colleges are hoping that a bill making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives may resolve their concerns over education regulations that go into effect July 1.

Under the new regulations, created by the Department of Education (DOE) in response to reports of financial-aid fraud at several for-profit institutions, states are required to have a "substantive" procedure to license private schools. For religious universities, this has raised concern that political agendas could be imposed on their missions. (See "New Rules Worry Christian Colleges," November 1, 2010.)

"My concern is that there appears to be no limit to what factors a state can consider when granting or withholding authorization, and no mechanisms for appeal or due process," said Blair Dowden, president of Huntington University, at a March hearing before a House committee.

The regulations include an exemption for religious institutions, provided the institution "is owned, controlled, operated, and maintained by a religious organization lawfully operating as a nonprofit religious corporation and awards only religious degrees or religious certificates including, but not limited to, a certificate of Talmudic studies, an associate of biblical studies, a bachelor of religious studies, a master of divinity, or a doctor of divinity."

That definition is so narrow, Dowden testified, that "not one member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) would qualify for an exemption."

Shapri LoMaglio, government relations director of the CCCU, said the council is strongly united with the rest of the higher-education community in wanting to see the new regulations eventually overturned.

"These [regulations] are a complete overreach into the institutional autonomy that private colleges should [have] and need in order to function as the independent and unique institutions that they are," she said.

In an attempt to address concerns, the DOE sent out a "Dear Colleague" letter to higher-education institutions in March with dozens of answers to commonly asked questions. A second letter in May announced an extension for distance-education compliance until July 1, 2014, provided institutions make "good faith efforts to identify and obtain necessary State authorization before that date."

However, the majority of the higher-education community is still trying to get the regulations ultimately repealed.

Of particular concern is the new federal definition of a credit hour. Opponents argue that defining the sacrosanct credit hour would limit innovation in learning strategies and cause undue problems in accreditation.

Additionally, opponents argue that the new need for a college to obtain authorization from each state it has distance-learning students in would be costly and could reduce the scale of online programs.

Dowden says that while Huntington does not currently have a large online program, the university is hoping to expand. But the new regulations would make it difficult and expensive.

"[The authorization process] is in some states very onerous, and if we only have one or two students in those states, we're not going to spend the money or fill out all the paperwork that's required to be able to operate in those states," he said.

John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, said just under a third of Excelsior's 30,000 students complete their coursework solely online. However, all of Excelsior's students could take an online class. This means that Excelsior has to register in all 54 jurisdictions, which will cost the school about $300,000. While that number will vary slightly from school to school, Ebersole said it's likely that more than half a billion dollars will be spent across the country to comply with the new requirements—a cost that will be passed on to students.

"[There are] two things the administration says it wants to do: increase access to education and reduce the cost," Ebersole said. "The action it has taken [in state authorization] is absolutely counter to both of those objectives."

The bill sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, would not only repeal the regulations but also prohibit the DOE from establishing a federal definition of the term "credit hour" in the future.

Ebersole said he thinks the bill will eventually be passed in the House, but he's doubtful about any success in the Senate.

"Even if we could convince a few of the Democratic senators to support it, it would be very unusual for the President to sign a bill that essentially takes to task his own Department of Education," Ebersole said. "I really appreciate the spirit of the bill, but I don't think it's heading anywhere."

Morgan Feddes is editorial resident at Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today covered the new higher education regulations in November.

Recent articles on education include:

Generic Christian U. | Ties that bind church schools are loosening. (Jan. 14, 2011)
Boarding Bust: Schools for Missionary Kids See Lower Attendance | Recent reports of child abuse overshadow another trend. (Dec. 27, 2010)
Challenging Chappies | Australia's atheist prime minister wants chaplains in schools. (Dec. 14, 2010)