Commission examining federal rule that could ‘impede access’ to online education

The commission will have an adviser from the Education Department.

A group of influential policy makers will review a federal regulation that has drawn the scorn of online college officials who say the government rule could leave students in small states without access to web-based courses.

“State authorization” rules have been at the center of an ongoing debate among federal officials pushing colleges to register online programs in every state in which they operate, and campus decision makers who call the law onerous and overreaching.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) lost a court battle over the state authorization rules last year, but ED officials have continued to push for the regulations. And the U.S. House of Representatives in February voted to eliminate state authorization rules in a rare bipartisan vote.

The issue was not taken up in the Senate.

Read more about state authorization rules in higher education…

Online colleges applaud regulation-killing House vote

As regulations loom, a call for cooperation between states

The state authorization battle isn’t likely to fade in 2012, as the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) in May helped form a 20-person national commission to study the immediate and long-term impact of federal regulations on online learning programs.

The commission, scheduled to meet June 12, will include university presidents, executives from the for-profit college industry, a former governor, and state lawmakers. An ED official will serve as an advisor to the commission.

The group will meet a few times throughout 2012, according to APLU’s website.

Campus technologists and administrators have long said linking federal financial aid to compliance with state authorization rules is a burden on colleges and universities, since completing authorization paperwork for a single state can take days, even weeks.

“There is a discordant network of state laws and regulations that unintentionally impede access and need to be reviewed,” said Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “The answer lies in finding common sense solutions that result in a more uniform structure among the states thus fostering further access and innovation.”

Marshall Hill, executive director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education and a commission member, said online-education advocates should seek a compromise that weeds out fraudulent college programs without stunting the massive growth of online courses.

“We clearly need to do better than we now do: better in enabling and supporting much-needed innovation; better in assuring quality across the board; and better in dealing with the bad apple issues that have plagued the expansion of online learning,” Hill said. “We simply cannot accomplish what we need to accomplish without significantly challenging the status quo.”

Meanwhile, the Presidents’ Forum – an online learning advocacy group – is working with the Council of State Governments to create a reciprocity agreement between states – a popular alternative to the proposed state authorization rules.

College officials have made it clear that they won’t serve students in states with the most onerous requirements to abide by.

The costs of seeking approval in those states could prove to be too high, so many schools will provide online classes only for students who live in states that aren’t heavy-handed with compliance measures, according to a survey conducted by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WCET).

Six in 10 colleges and universities with online programs identified states they likely would not serve if state authorization rules were fully implemented.

Twenty-nine schools said they would withdraw online classes from Massachusetts, 16 said they would leave Minnesota, and 15 wouldn’t serve college students in Arkansas.

“It’ll have a chilling effect on distance education, and students will start complaining and rising up about their freedom of taking classes being curtailed in the name of consumer protections,” said Russell Poulin, deputy director of WCET.

The cost of compliance, especially in states with myriad requirements, would be around $143,000 per college or university, according to the WCET survey of 230 institutions. Fifteen percent of school officials said the costs were too high, and three in 10 lack the staff to complete compliance forms.

Arkansas, for instance, requires all colleges to name every faculty member, even at colleges that employ thousands of professors and instructors to teach online courses. Kansas’s government needs signed affidavits from every faculty member before a college can make online classes available to students in that state.

“The difficult processes really start to pile up after a while,” Poulin said.

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