In the News: No Penalty for Western Governors

The Department of Education announced on Friday that Western Governors University, one of the largest online universities, would not be found out of compliance with federal student aid requirements and would not be forced to return student aid funds.

As Andrew Kreighbaum explains in Inside Higher Ed,

The department’s Office of Inspector General found in 2017 that Western Governors University, which enrolls more than 83,000 students, failed to meet federal requirements for the interaction between faculty members and students. The audit said WGU should pay back $713 million in federal student aid.

The Trump administration wasn’t expected to carry out the IG’s recommendations. The Education Department has been less interested in cracking down on colleges under Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education. And Western Governors has received bipartisan support from Washington policy makers, including praise from the Obama administration for its low-priced, competency-based model.

In the Fall 2018 issue of EdNext, Jason Delisle and Nat Malkus questioned the role being played by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in this and other cases.

They wrote:

Now consider OIG’s review of federal-aid dollars at Western Governors University (WGU), which offers online degree programs using an innovative, competency-based model. OIG’s adherence to legacy rules about student seat time led it to conclude in a 2017 audit that the university ran afoul of the same higher-education law that snared Halton, and it suggested that WGU, which has strong outcomes and was lauded by the Obama administration for its performance, return more than $700 million to taxpayers. Going a step further, OIG then cautioned Congress against a proposed update to federal higher-education law that would ensure schools like WGU have full access to student aid dollars.

Is that the right finding for WGU? And should OIG encourage lawmakers to consider that finding as they work to update federal higher-education law? OIG is critical to protecting students and taxpayers from waste, fraud, and abuse, and its effectiveness and political independence give its recommendations a lot of influence in federal education-policy debates. If OIG backs a controversial policy or set of actions, supporters in the education community will inevitably hold up its supposedly impartial stance as evidence that its position is in the best interests of taxpayers and students.

But OIG is not a neutral entity. By design, it prioritizes financial propriety above all else. While that is an important consideration, it is just one of many interests at play. Anyone reading OIG’s reports and recommendations would do well to keep the country’s broader educational interests and goals in mind.

For more, read “Inspecting the Inspector General: Should Auditors Set the Terms of Debate on Federal Education Policy?” by Jason Delisle and Nat Malkus.

— Education Next

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