Proposed Federal Regulations Would Force Online Educators to Seek Approval from States

Policy
Posted By Derek Johnson on August 4, 2016 at 1:30 pm
Proposed Federal Regulations Would Force Online Educators to Seek Approval from States

The federal Department of Education wants to close what it believes is a loophole in federal regulations governing online educators. The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register and clarifies that online and distance educators must meet authorization standards for all states where their students reside.

In a press release announcing the proposal, U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell said the move is designed to protect the more than 5.5 million students across the country who take advantage of online and distance education.

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

In order for a higher education institution to be eligible for federal student aid in the U.S., it needs authorization from three entities: the federal government, an accreditation agency and the state in which the university operates. The process is meant to ensure that every higher education provider meets the same federal and national standards and that it also is accountable to local governments that are more directly responsible for their citizens’ higher education options.

The change toward online educators

For decades, this setup was uncontroversial because nearly all brick and mortar universities traditionally operated within a single state. However, the rise of online and distance education technology has changed the way institutions operate, with a single university now able to reach and provide services to students in all 50 states. The Department of Education believes that millions of “out-of-state” students (those who live and work in states other than the university’s home state) are unprotected by current laws and regulations.

The proposed rule mentions complaints filed to multiple federal agencies about potential violations by online universities: “The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and others have voiced concerns over fraudulent practices, issues of noncompliance with requirements of the title IV programs, and other challenges within the distance education environment.”

The rule cites misuse of Title IV funds (federal student aid), gaps in consumer protection and issues verifying student identities. Additionally, it alleges that “some States have expressed concerns over their ability to identify what out of State providers are operating in their States, whether those programs prepare their students for employment, including meeting licensure requirements in those States, the academic quality of programs offered by those providers, as well as the ability to receive, investigate and address student complaints about out-of-State institutions.”

As one example, a 2011 GAO investigation sent undercover students to 15 for-profit online education programs. Students were given fictitious high school degrees and engaged in a series of actions related to substandard academic performance. Of the 15 programs targeted, 12 accepted the fictitious high school diploma and just under half (7) had one more staff that “appeared to act in conflict” with stated school policies on academic dishonesty, grading standards and exit counseling for student loans. Undercover students who repeatedly plagiarized their work or failed to attend classes were met with little or no consequences at six of the programs, even when professors reported their behavior to administrators.

In 2014 the Office of the Inspector General released the results of an audit conducted for eight online universities in five states. The audit found inadequate oversight by state and federal regulators and recommended that regulations be tightened for distance educators because they create “new opportunities for fraud, abuse and waste” of federal student aid.

Digging into changes for online educators

The newly proposed regulations would force distance educators to seek authorization from every state in which they operate. In addition, the regulations will require online providers to specify and disclose when state or federal authorities take legal action against them and when specific state laws conflict with general claims made by the university about licensing or certification.

The action comes at a time when distance education is becoming increasingly prevalent both at newer all-digital schools and traditional universities that continue to incorporate online courses into their programs. There are now 2.8 million students who get their education exclusively online and more than 5.5 million that take at least one online course. A 2015 survey sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium found that one in four college students take at least one online course but that only 29 percent of academic leaders report faculty acceptance of the “value and legitimacy of online education.” The survey found that among schools with higher rates of online enrollment, faculty acceptance shoots up to 60 percent.

The proposed rule is currently open for public comment until August 24, and a final version of the regulations are scheduled to be complete by the end of 2016.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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