Federal online college regulations have new life

The U.S. Department of Education took new steps in November to reinstate federal online learning regulations that have drawn the ire of many online learning institutions.

regulations-online-educationThe department announced on Nov. 20 that it is creating a Negotiated Rulemaking Committee to contemplate regulations for “state authorization for programs offered through distance education.”

The regulatory hoops institutions must jump through when serving students outside their states can already be numerous, but in 2010 the Department of Education released new regulations that linked state authorization to federal financial aid.

In June 2012, after a series of lawsuits challenging the regulation, the authorization was vacated by the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals, but many educators and observers expected it to be reinstated.

The assembling of the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee nudges that reinstatement closer to a reality.

The Department is seeking nominations for members of the committee, which is expected to complete its work by April 25. A draft of the regulations would then be released for public comment before being finalized as early as fall 2014.

Russ Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, said the deadline for institutions to be authorized will likely come much sooner rather than later.

“The department has put the institutions on notice for years now since 2010, so it may end up being a fairly short deadline to become authorized,” Poulin said. “It won’t be a really long timeline after they’ve released the final regulations.”

The costs of complying – and consequences for not – can be steep for institutions offering distance learning outside of their home states.

See page 2 for details on what consequences college could face if they aren’t prepared for the federal rules…

Complying with state authorization rules could cost $143,000 per college or university, according to a WICHE survey of 230 institutions.

Colleges and universities must already comply with state regulations, so tying in federal financial aid is seen by some college leaders as adding an unnecessary burden to an already burdensome process.

And they aren’t alone. In February 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate state authorization rules in a rare bipartisan vote.

In a November interview with eCampus News, John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, one of the country’s oldest institutions to offer distance learning courses, said such regulations can be hurdles for innovation in education.

“This is the most intrusive Department of Education in the history of our education system,” Ebersole said. “And I believe they think there’s no problem that can’t be solved with a good regulation.”

The original federal regulations were not vacated on these grounds, however, but rather because the language “was not included in previous negotiated rulemaking or public comment processes,” according to Poulin. The court upheld the Department of Education’s right to issue the regulation.

As the department is now allowing for public comment, there will be little standing between the regulations and re-authorization. Poulin said, like it or not, it’s time for institutions to start complying with state authorizations.

“When that deadline comes, the states aren’t going to feel any need to hurry your authorization up just because you waited,” he said. “They’re underfunded, under-staffed. Some institutions may end up being on the outside suddenly where they can’t get approved, and in states where they may already have quite a lot of students.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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