Unfunded federal mandates cost VCU millions

Virginia Commonwealth University estimates it spends about $13 million annually to comply with more than 200 federal regulations, according to a fiscal report Congress asked all Virginia public universities to submit as part of a review of unfunded mandates.

According to the report, VCU spends $800,000 to comply with Title IX, $1.84 million for safety, security and environmental mandates and $2.08 million for student programs. VCU spokesman Mike Porter said the increase in unfunded federal mandates did not have an impact on tuition.

“From where I sit, the regulations are there as a form of checks and balances,” said University Chief Integrity and Compliance Officer Jacqueline Kniska, whose position is independent from university management. “If we didn’t have the regulations would we always do the same things? Probably not,” Kniska said. “I think when funding is an issue and dollars are scarce, you have to make decisions.”

At VCU, federal regulation costs range from athletics to research to policing. Kniska said that more money may go toward areas of special interest to a university — such as research — where VCU estimates it spends more than $6.5 million, the most of any regulated category.

Kniska stressed that there is a caveat, though: because federal regulations cover such a broad range of areas, and involve so many people, it’s hard to determine exactly how much money is solely dedicated to each and therefore the estimates put forth by VCU Finance and Budget is simply an estimate.

“I gave (Finance) the list of regulations — that doesn’t have dollar signs next to it. We don’t collect it that way,” Kniska said. “We don’t have, you know, ‘Jaclyn salary’ attached to the federal mandates that are unfunded … so when we responded we said, look these are our best guesses, but we don’t track money this way.”

Estimated university compliance costs are high across the state, through. The University of Virginia reports it spends $20 million a year in compliance. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, U.Va. said they have added at least four full-time positions to handle increased regulations.

The College of William and Mary gives a “conservative estimate” of $4.5 to $6.7 million in annual costs; Longwood estimates $2 million in expenses including $310,425 annually to comply with Title IX, $299,662 on the financial aid program and $155,195 on the Clery Act.

The number of federal requirements for higher education institutions grew by 56 percent from 1997 to 2012; in the five years Kniska has been at VCU since she said she has seen increased attention on federal mandates.

Kniska said specific focus on a regulated area — Title IX, for example — depend on the federal administration. During his tenure, former President Barack Obama significantly heightened the standard of reporting sexual assaults on college campuses, and there are now more than 200 colleges and universities under federal investigation under the Office of Civil Rights in D.C.

While there are a subset of external areas — such as the OCR — that require an external monthly report to the Department of Education, Kniska said she does not think there are too many regulations but some of the details could be filtered down.

“You have to fill outs forms and give quarterly reports. All the details — that can get to be a little bit cumbersome. The way in which the regulations are carried out, the compliance with the regulations — that can be streamlined,” Kniska said. “I think the regulations have very good intentions.”

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, requested that universities submit the information in a December letter to Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford).

The request may be tied to President Donald Trump’s promise to drastically reduce federal regulations. In February, Virginia’s Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., an evangelical leader who endorsed Trump’s campaign, was asked to lead a White House task force to help reform the higher education system.

A Liberty spokesman said Falwell would focus on overregulation. Falwell has said in the past that the unnecessary micromanagement of higher education is ultimately driving up the cost for public university tuition.

In contrast, Kniska said compliance will not simply go away.

“One of my favorite sayings is ‘laws are created where ethics have failed,’ because if everyone did things on the up and up and the way they were supposed to do it, we wouldn’t have volumes upon volumes of regulations,” Kniska said. “There are so many things that go into creating these regulations. Could we do without some of them? Sure.”

Sara Rose Martin | News | martinsr@commonwealthtimes.org

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