A coalition of higher education groups on Thursday asked Congressional leaders to push for a one-year delay in two Education Department regulations that are scheduled to take effect in July. The groups, organized as usual by the American Council on Education, urged Representative Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who heads the House of Representatives postsecondary education subcommittee, to either encourage or force the Education Department to delay the implementation date of rules that would establish a federal definition of "credit hour" and expand state authorization requirements (see related Views essay). The two rules are part of a larger package of regulations aimed at protecting the integrity of federal financial aid programs, and they "will have little or no effect in curbing fraud and abuse, but they could do enormous damage to the quality and diversity of postsecondary academic offerings," the groups wrote. Education Department officials have ignored previous requests from the higher education associations to change or rescind the rules, the groups said. And with time running out, neither state officials nor campus administrators have guidance about how to implement the new rules, making for an impossible situation, the associations suggest.
Effective July 1 of this year, the Education Department will require every online program, whether offered by Harvard or the University of Phoenix, to meet the approval standards of every state in which it has students or faculty members -- potentially 54 separate jurisdictions -- to qualify to award financial aid. Failure to comply will lead to aid repayment and a fine.
With nearly three-quarters of all accredited institutions now offering at least some programs online, there are 3,000 institutions that will potentially need to seek approval for each of the programs they offer. In some states this will require a review of every course syllabus and every instructor’s CV. The fact that the institution has been around for a couple of hundred years, has Nobel laureates on its faculty and has been regionally accredited since such a test of legitimacy existed, is of no consequence. And some states’ requirements call for a physical site visit at the offering institution’s expense.
As if this were not sufficiently daunting, those seeking to comply with the Education Department’s edict will be referred to state higher education offices that have been drastically downsized because of budget cuts (some report having but a single person dedicated to conducting these reviews). One state has already indicated that it could take a year for it to determine how they will respond to the expected avalanche of applications.
So here we are. The president, supported by the work of leading foundations, has given us an important goal, one that we need to take seriously. Yet, we can’t get near the desired endpoint without the help of the one form of education that has the capacity to serve displaced adolescents and adult students alike – online learning. Use of this powerful tool is about to be limited as both degree-granting institutions and state officials struggle with the burden of universal registration. Additionally, the cost of compliance could easily run to $100,000 per institution (or $300 million when all online providers are considered). This will only add to the cost of education.
Other alternatives include suspending online programs altogether, or not offering them in difficult or nonresponsive states. How this supports the president and his goal is far from clear.
If President Obama wants to reduce federal regulation and increase degree completion, he and Secretary Duncan need to find time for a game of HORSE.