Fed rule could have ‘major chilling effect’ on online instruction

A proposed federal rule could cripple many online education programs.

Colleges that offer online instruction nationwide would have to get approval from every state in which they operate, or those online courses could be shut down, after the Education Department (ED) proposed a controversial rule that has drawn the ire of educators and distance-education organizations.

The regulation, known as the state-authorization rule, is scheduled to take effect July 1.

It would force colleges and universities that receive federal aid to prove they are certified to operate in every state in which they have online students—a mandate, educators said, that comes at a high cost and could cripple many burgeoning online education programs.

“The main concern is that colleges are put in a spot where they have to pay … hundreds of thousands” in legal fees to abide by the new federal rule, said Russell Poulin, deputy director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), an organization that advocates for online instruction.

Instead of paying those fees and meeting legal requirements to operate in many states, Poulin said, many institutions simply would no longer offer online education programs in those states. That would force students to find other ways to finish their education, likely delaying their path toward a degree.

For those schools that pay for state-by-state certification, higher-education officials said the costs associated with compliance would lead to skyrocketing tuition increases.

“This will have a major chilling effect on one of the fastest growing areas of education in the country,” said Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC). “And it is completely counter on the administration’s intent to have many more people graduate from college.”

A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee is scheduled to discuss the state-authorization rule during a March 11 hearing.

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