Ed Dept issues proposed distance learning rules, emphasizes flexibility

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education issued proposed rules for distance learning Wednesday, following a months-long rulemaking process last year. 
  • The proposal seeks to give schools more flexibility for providing online programs, such as by reducing some barriers to offering competency-based education and providing latitude for measuring the credit hour.
  • However, some observers say the 30-day comment period on the rules doesn’t give stakeholders enough time to adequately review and respond to them in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Final regulations are expected by Nov. 1.

Dive Insight:

The proposed rules are part of a bigger regulatory overhaul that aims to give schools more flexibility in how they approach instruction while retaining eligibility for federal student aid. However, critics warn the move eliminates important oversight.

This past fall, the department put forward final rules for state authorization and accreditation. They call for eliminating regional boundaries for accreditors, among other changes. Some observers caution that the decision could make it easier for schools to change accreditors if they can’t meet the standards of their current one.

The latest set of proposed rules generally offers schools more latitude to administer distance learning. It lowers some barriers to offering competency-based education programs, clarifies expectations around regular and substantive interaction, and allows for the use of instructional teams for distance education courses, not just individual instructors. 

It also spells out how schools should handle subscription-based programs. And it makes it easier for schools to offer direct-assessment programs, including by allowing them to offer hybrid programs, in which students take some but not all classes under that model. 

That could let colleges explore using direct assessment without having to build an entire program around the model, said Jillian Klein, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Strategic Education Inc., which offers competency-based programs through Capella University. Klein was a member of the rulemaking committee representing private for-profit colleges. 

The proposal maintains existing requirements about how much student work goes into a credit hour while formally adding language from previous guidance that gives institutions flexibility in how they measure instruction. For instance, Klein said, the original definition of the credit hour was oriented toward traditional campus-based lecture classes, whereas the change lets schools take different approaches for courses offered online, where the lecture format doesn’t cleanly transfer. 

Schools also must notify the department when they work with an organization that is not eligible for Title IV funding to provide between 25% and 50% of an educational program, according to the proposal. During the rulemaking process, negotiators had considered allowing institutions to outsource as much as 100%.

The department contends that reducing regulations around the use of nontraditional programs will encourage institutions to launch more of them. It also argues that the previous regulations didn’t reflect how much technology is impacting education.

“In that regard,” the rules explain, “this (proposed rule) represents the Department’s effort to catch up with innovations that are already taking place at forward-looking institutions.”

As for whether the rules will allow more schools to offer competency-based education, a mode called out frequently in the report, “it’s not that we’ll see an immediate rush into the space, but this does to some extent reduce the barriers to entry,” said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank.

The language isn’t final, however. While the draft rules largely reflect what the negotiators landed on, the department can make changes after the public comment period. 

Although the rules were expected, the department said in a press release that the coronavirus pandemic “underscores” the need for them. 

Over the course of the last month, colleges have emptied dorms and moved classes online to try to curb the spread of the virus. The Ed Department responded with guidance eliminating some steps institutions would need to take to offer programs remotely, as well as limiting the technology they’d be required to use.

Some observers say colleges may not be able to participate as extensively in the public comment period as they focus instead on addressing the impact of the coronavirus crisis. 

Yet while now might not be an ideal time to ask colleges for comment on new regulations, “the rest of the year is also likely to be terrible,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. 

The administration faces additional pressure this election year to meet the Nov. 1 deadline for issuing its final rule, which would go into effect in July 2021.

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