A controversial federal regulation that has proven onerous for many online colleges was struck down by a wide margin in the U.S. House of Representatives Feb. 29, although the repeal is not expected to pass the Senate.
In a largely ceremonial move, state authorization rules—which require colleges and universities with online programs to seek permission to offer their courses in all 50 states—were repealed after more than a year of complaints from Congressional Republicans and higher-education officials who said the regulations would restrict college access.
The rules, which took effect last July after months of criticism from online college administrators, were meant to ensure schools comply with state laws that require course-by-course registration with state accreditors. If a college didn’t comply, it would be denied federal funding—the lifeblood of most campuses.
The Republican-controlled House passed the repeal 303-114, with 69 Democrats voting yes. Educators said there isn’t even a slim chance the state authorization repeal will hold up in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“It’s a largely symbolic vote, but I don’t think the symbolism is going to be completely lost,” said John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, a New York-based online school. “The message is that we’ve had several months of trying to comply with these rules, and it is a problem. … The problems with these rules are worse than the Department of Education ever realized.”
Alan Contreras, former administrator for Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization, said that even if the state authorization repeal passed through the Senate, “the net effect on colleges would be zero” because it would not strip state regulations already in place.
“They’ll still have to hire people to work on [complying with] state regulations,” he said. “I’m very sorry colleges are inconvenienced to have to operate under the law, but they need to clean it up.”
The House repeal would, however, remove the federal government from the regulatory equation, meaning colleges and universities could receive vital federal Title IV funds even if they did not abide by established state rules.
Contreras said state authorization regulations are needed—especially with the proliferation of online education options—because students have enrolled in programs, taken courses, and earned a degree, only to be told that the school they graduated from had not complied with state laws and therefore wasn’t authorized in that state.
“That is the kind of mess colleges are making for their students,” he said. “Schools should provide students with this information, but of course, they don’t.”
The House vote was a blow against basic consumer protections pushed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama since 2009, said Justin Hamilton, an Education Department spokesman.