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U.S. Department of Education Issues New Guidance on Incentive Compensation Regulations

On Friday, November 27, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education (the “Department”) will publish guidance in the Federal Register regarding its October 29, 2010 changes to the incentive compensation regulations at 34 C.F.R. § 668.14(b)(22) that took legal effect July 1, 2011. Those revised regulations removed a “safe harbor” that had previously permitted certain graduation-based or completion-based compensation, and further indicated that the Department interpreted its revised regulations to ban such forms of compensation to persons covered by the Higher Education Act’s incentive compensation prohibition.

In light of the federal court decision and subsequent order in APSCU v. Duncan, 70 F. Supp. 3d 446 (D.D.C. 2014), the Department states that it has now reconsidered its interpretation of the statutory prohibition and (subject to the caveats described below) that it does not interpret its July 1, 2011 regulations to proscribe compensation for admissions and recruiting personnel that is based upon students’ graduation from, or completion of, educational programs. Correspondingly, the Department also announced that it will not view references in its regulations to enrollment activities that may occur “through completion” by a student of an educational program as prohibiting graduation-based or completion-based compensation to admissions and recruiting personnel.

Importantly, the Department’s notice explicitly reserves its right to take enforcement action against institutions if compensation labeled as graduation-based or completion-based compensation is merely “a guise for enrollment-based compensation,” which remains prohibited. In assessing the legality of any compensation structure, the Department says it “will focus on the substance of the structure rather than on the label given the structure by an institution.” Thus, the Department further states that while compensation based on students’ graduation from, or completion of, educational programs is not per se prohibited, institutions are still prohibited from providing compensation that is based directly or indirectly, in any part, upon success in securing enrollments (as such activities are broadly defined in the Department’s regulations) even if one or more other permissible factors are also considered.

In this same notice, the Department also responds to the federal court’s order with respect to potential impacts of the regulations, as revised effective July 1, 2011, on the recruitment and enrollment of minority students. The Department acknowledges that its regulations could negatively affect outreach and enrollment generally, as well as student outreach that is specifically targeted at promoting diversity, which could result in fewer minority students recruited and enrolled. However, it states, neither the Higher Education Act nor any information presented by commenters to the regulations when proposed provide a basis for treating a recruitment program directed at minority students differently than an institution’s general or other specific recruitment programs.

A full copy of the Department’s Federal Register guidance is available here.

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About this Author

John Przypyszny, Drinker Biddle Law Firm, Public Education Attorney

John R. Przypyszny counsels institutions of higher education, education companies as well as accrediting agencies on the broad range of legal issues and education law related issues that impact their institutions and businesses on a day-to-day basis. He advises clients on education law matters involving the U.S. Department of Education, accrediting bodies, state agencies and other government regulators. He also has extensive experience advising institutions of higher education on the statutory and regulatory requirements of federal student financial aid...

(202) 842-8858
Jonathan Tarnow, Education and Government affairs lawyer, Drinker Biddle

Jonathan D. Tarnow advises clients on a wide range of education law matters involving the U.S. Department of Education, accrediting bodies, state agencies and other government regulators. He has extensive experience advising public, non-profit and proprietary institutions of higher education on the statutory and regulatory requirements of federal student financial aid programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act, and has represented institutions in Title IV compliance reviews and audits, including administrative hearings and appeals related to findings of non-compliance. Jonathan is a partner in the firm's Government and Regulatory Affairs Group and a member of the Education Team and the Privacy and Data Security Team.

He frequently represents private equity funds, private investors, publicly traded and privately held education companies, and financial institutions that serve postsecondary educational institutions on transactions in the education sector. This includes purchases and sales of institutions or their assets, conversions of private institutions from proprietary to non-profit status, credit facilities to support acquisitions or ongoing operations, and other complex transactions involving colleges and universities.

(202) 354-1357