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Higher Education: Experts Cited a Range of Requirements as Burdensome

GAO-13-371 Published: Apr 10, 2013. Publicly Released: May 10, 2013.
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What GAO Found

Experts GAO interviewed offered varied opinions on which student financial aid requirements under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, are the most burdensome. While no single requirement was cited as burdensome by a majority of the 18 experts, 11 cited various consumer disclosure requirements--such as those pertaining to campus safety--primarily due to the time and difficulty needed to gather the information. Beyond consumer disclosures, 4 experts cited "Return of Title IV Funds"--which requires schools to calculate and return unearned financial aid to the federal government when a recipient withdraws from school--as burdensome because schools find it difficult to calculate the precise amount of funds that should be returned. More broadly, 6 experts said that the cumulative burden of multiple requirements is a substantial challenge. Experts also noted some benefits. For example, an expert said required loan disclosures help students understand their repayment responsibilities.

School officials who participated in each of the eight discussion groups GAO conducted expressed similar views about the types of burdens and benefits associated with Title IV requirements. Participants in all groups said requirements for consumer disclosures and Return of Title IV Funds are costly and complicated. Regarding consumer disclosures, participants questioned the value of disclosing data that cannot be readily compared across schools, like data on graduates' employment, which may be calculated using different methodologies. Participants in four groups found Return of Title IV Funds requirements difficult to complete within the required time frame. Participants also cited some benefits, such as how consumer disclosures can help applicants choose the right school and unearned Title IV funds can be redirected to other students.

Education seeks feedback from schools on regulatory burden mainly through formal channels, such as announcements posted in the Federal Register, on its website, and on a department listserv. However, Education officials said they have received a limited number of comments about burden in response to these announcements. GAO reviewed Education's notices soliciting public comments on burden estimates for its postsecondary information collections--which require the public, including schools, to submit or publish specified data--and found that 65 of 353 notices (18 percent) received comments, of which 25 received comments related to burden. For example, 2 notices received input on the difficulties of providing data requested by the department.

Why GAO Did This Study

Postsecondary schools must comply with a variety of federal requirements to participate in student financial aid programs authorized under Title IV. While these requirements offer potential benefits to schools, students, and taxpayers, questions have been raised as to whether they may also distract schools from their primary mission of educating students. GAO examined (1) which requirements, if any, experts say create burden, (2) the types of burdens and benefits schools say requirements create, and (3) how Education solicits feedback from stakeholders on regulatory burden.

GAO reviewed relevant federal regulatory and statutory requirements, and past and ongoing efforts examining postsecondary regulatory burden; interviewed Education officials and 18 experts, including officials from associations that represent postsecondary schools; and conducted eight discussion groups at two national conferences with a nongeneralizable sample of 51 school officials from public, nonprofit, and for-profit sectors. GAO also reviewed documentation associated with Education's requests for public comment on burden for proposed postsecondary information collections and its retrospective analysis of regulations.

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GAO makes no recommendations in this report. In its comments, Education sought clarification regarding types of federal requirements and additional information on its efforts to balance burden and benefits. We provided clarifications and additional information, as appropriate.

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