2. ‘State authorization rule’ places an unwelcome new burden on distance-education programs.
While the $2 billion in federal TAACCCT grants could help spark eLearning, another decision by federal officials threatens to pull the plug on web-based courses for some students.
Colleges that offer online instruction must get approval from every state in which they operate, or their online courses could be shut down, after a controversial rule from the Education Department (ED) went into effect July 1. The regulation, known as the state-authorization rule, has drawn the ire of distance-education organizations from coast to coast.
The rule requires 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 that comes at a high cost and could cripple many burgeoning online-learning programs, educators say.
So far, federal officials have given colleges and universities some flexibility in meeting the new mandate: As long as online-learning programs are taking sincere steps to comply, ED hasn’t threatened to shut them down. But it remains to be seen how long this grace period will last—or whether the rule will, indeed, have the kind of “chilling” effect on eLearning programs that some observers fear.
“The main concern is that colleges are put in a spot where they have to pay … hundreds of thousands” of dollars in legal fees to abide by the new rule, said Russell Poulin, deputy director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, 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 might cease to 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 could lead to steep 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. “And it is completely counter on the administration’s intent to have many more people graduate from college.”
Poulin said colleges are still left with the “monumental burden” of identifying where their web-based students are located, deciphering the often unclear state regulations, and deciding if they need to apply to each state.
Complicating the situation is ED’s mandate to register every online program in every state. In other words, the same school might have to seek separate registration for its nursing, computer science, and business programs in each state.
John Ebersole, president of New York-based Excelsior College, said during a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing March 10 that Excelsior staffers recently spent about 400 hours completing applications for two programs in one state.
“It really is mountains of paperwork that they’re going to have to fill out,” Poulin said.
Robert Larson, director of the North Dakota University System’s online education program, said that if compliance with the state-authorization rule proves too pricey, NDUS might cease its online courses out of state.
That would mean NDUS would operate without tuition from about 5,000 out-of-state web-based students.
“To not have those students enrolled in our schools, would we survive? Probably,” he said. “Would it be as good? No.”
Schools won’t have to get permission from states that don’t have regulations for out-of-state institutions, according to ED. The state-authorization rule also does not apply to colleges that run programs entirely online. But if a school requires occasional live, proctored tests on physical campuses, it would have to comply with the rule.
Officials who have tracked ED’s state-authorization rule said the regulation would have most impact on nonprofit, public institutions that run web-based courses attended by students across the country. For-profit schools such as Kaplan University or the University of Phoenix obtained certification from states years ago, so ED’s rule won’t affect them.