The Obama administration’s attempts to regulate for profit colleges are reportedly being “watered down” under pressure of lobbyists and the industry:

Last year, the Obama administration vowed to stop for-profit colleges from luring students with false promises. In an opening volley that shook the $30 billion industry, officials proposed new restrictions to cut off the huge flow of federal aid to unfit programs.

But after a ferocious response that administration officials called one of the most intense they had seen, the Education Departmentproduced a much-weakened final plan that almost certainly will have far less impact as it goes into effect next year.

Maybe “much-weakened final plan” is in fact  watering down good regulations as a kow-tow to political pressure as a former Education Department official who helped shape the original plan claims. Or maybe the administration “listened to what they viewed as reasonable arguments and decided to narrow the scope of the original plan” as Cass Sunstein claims. Maybe it’s a little of both. As far as I can tell from the article, this is the meat of the changes:

The final standards leave a maximum of 5 percent of schools facing financial sanctions at the start; the original plan would have meant penalties against an estimated 16 percent.

The rules also pushed back the penalties to 2015 from 2012, while requiring schools to disclose more data about loans, defaults and job placement.

My gut instinct is that this constitutes watering down, but I’d put very little weight on that. What seems clear to me is that the original form of the new regulations as envisioned by the administration contained a much more egregious and much larger “watering down” in the application of the regulation to for-profit schools only, rather than both for-profit and non-profit. On what basis can one justify this exemption?

One can argue that the for-profit sector vastly underperforms the non-profit sector, and thus is the one in need of stricter standards. But it seems hard to argue that 1) standards have been designed to affect only underperforming colleges 2) non-profit schools aren’t underperforming, and 3) subjecting non-profit schools to the standards would affect them. If subjecting them to the regulations will harm them, then they are underperforming. If they aren’t underperforming, then subjecting them to regulations won’t harm them.

I think mood affiliation makes some people instinctively see for-profit schools as bad and deserving of attacks, and non-profits are good and deserving of praise. Diane Ravitch is the exemplar here. The popularity of this bias explains why the egregious exemption of non-profits from this law can exist. This is why people see the extremely low graduation rates of some for-profit schools and declare with outrage that they are failing and in need of major reform, and yet look at the sky high dropout rates at our nations worst public schools and scoff that teachers can only do so much and that poverty is the real problem. (I will let someone else write a post drawing parallels between this law and NCLB and highlighting inconsistent criticisms therein, but suspect it is a rich topic for exploration.)

To a lesser but still real extent, I think mood affiliation bias probably makes it easier for some on the other side to acknowledge the extent to which socioeconomic status should be considered in school performance measures when the class of schools we are talking about are largely unregulated for-profit corporations and not union dominated public sector institutions.

This is not to say that one must have equivalent scorn or praise for the worst for-profit colleges and the worst public schools, but that the extremeness, starkness, and gut level of these reactions is problematic.

Mood affiliation is everywhere in education, and it will continue to hold back real reforms.

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