Dept of Ed Proposes New Distance Learning Regulations

(Photo: David Scavone, USC)

(Photo: David Scavone, USC)

The US Department of Education has proposed regulations that seek to improve oversight and protect more than 5.5 million distance education students at degree-granting institutions by clarifying the state authorization requirements for postsecondary distance education. The students who will see the benefit of this government initiative include nearly 3 million students who study exclusively online.

The regulations have been proposed in part to ensure that institutions offering distance education are legally authorized and monitored by states as required by the Higher Education Act. The regulations clarify state authorization requirements for institutions to participate in the Department’s federal student aid programs, while also addressing state and federal oversight of American colleges operating in foreign locations worldwide.

US Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell has expanded on the need for these new regulations, saying:

“These proposed regulations achieve an important balance between accountability and flexibility, and in so doing create better protections for students and taxpayers. Additionally, these regulations promote and clarify state authorization procedures, further strengthening the integrity of federal financial aid programs.”

In 2006, a rule restricting access to federal student aid for distance education programs was abolished by Congress. Since that time, the number of students enrolled in online degree programs has increased dramatically. By 2014, meanwhile, more than half of students at for-profit institutions were enrolled in exclusively distance education courses, compared with an estimated 9 percent of students in public institutions and 15 per cent of students in private nonprofit institutions.

It is a requirement for institutions to be state authorized, as stipulated in the Higher Education Act, in order for them to be eligible to receive Title IV federal student aid. While all higher education institutions must have state authorization in the states in which they are located, there are no federal requirements for distance education providers in states where the institutions are not located. The proposed regulations outline several steps towards closing this loophole.

Institutions that offer distance education or correspondence courses will be required to have their courses authorized by each state in which the institution enrolls students.

Institutions will also be required to document the state process for resolving students’ complaints regarding distance education programs, as well as requiring individualized disclosures to these students, including adverse actions taken against the school, the school’s refund policies, and whether each program meets applicable state licensure or certification requirements.

Foreign branch campuses, meanwhile, will also be authorized by the appropriate foreign government agency.

The Department of Education had previously regulated on state authorization in relation to physical locations and distance education in 2010, but a federal court vacated the distance education portion of the rule on procedural grounds in 2011.

The Department held three session of negotiated rulemaking on these issues in 2014, but the negotiation committee did not reach a consensus. The new proposed regulations are a result of that process and are a new part of a longstanding regulatory effort by the Department to support state oversight of schools that offer distance or correspondence education as well as working to protect students in these programs.

The proposed regulations were published in the Federal Register on July 25 with the Department of Education expecting to publish a final regulation before the end of this year.