Policies Needed for Online Learners in 2020

Online learning plays a critical role for today’s students by offering greater flexibility to accommodate work schedules and, in many cases, creating more affordable pathways to credentials. However, concerns over quality and potential bad actors have inspired repeated attempts to regulate distance education in a manner that appropriately balances innovation with quality assurance and consumer protections.

The year 2019 started with an ambitious round of federal negotiated rulemaking with proposed amendments to the Higher Education Act (HEA) implementing regulations relating, in significant part, to federal financial aid eligibility for distance education programs. The U.S. Secretary of Education also continued efforts to roll back Obama-era program integrity rules, which has been met with litigation and led to several consequential court decisions and legal settlements. Meanwhile, we saw another year of HEA reauthorization hearings bringing about several new bills that warrant attention by the distance education community.

During this tumultuous year, I have frequently engaged with these policy issues as a Compliance and Policy Lead at the University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation, which supports a diverse portfolio of online learning experiences and seeks to increase education access and affordability for learners across the globe. I have also engaged with these issues as a Policy Committee member of UPCEA (University Professional and Continuing Education Association)—an organization devoted to in large part to advancing quality online learning opportunities for non-traditional students, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and all those with work and family commitments that impact with their ability to pursue educational goals. Below, you will find a few of my thoughts about 2019’s impact on distance education compliance and where I think we need to go from here.

An Appropriate Balance

Given the massive investment of time and money that students commit to their postsecondary education and the competition among postsecondary institutions for those investments, regulating to help ensure such investments pay off through quality learning experiences and meaningful credentials seems worthwhile. And as online education can freely cross state lines, a number of unique jurisdictional challenges also emerge, which has led to increased federal attention and the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA)—voluntary agreements among states and eligible institutions of higher education. As is the case in any industry, however, when rules are too restrictive, one of the victims will be innovation.

New federal rules for 2020, which derived from consensus language reached by negotiated rulemakers—including representatives from accreditors, institutions of higher education, and consumer advocacy groups—generally strike the right balance in my view. While complaint procedures in an institution’s home state must still be published, ensuring complaints will be heard beyond the walls of the institution, certain disclosure requirements that necessitated specific actions by states beyond an institution’s control have been eliminated. Previous rules unnecessarily jeopardized the ability of out-of-state students to receive federal student aid if their home states failed to meet federal requirements (as we temporarily witnessed in California over the summer). Also, authorization by reciprocity, such as through SARA participation, has not only been codified but there is now clear language preventing states from overriding terms of the agreement that they have voluntarily entered, promoting increased confidence in the reciprocity system. Finally, disclosures relating to professional licensure eligibility for out-of-state students will now apply to on-campus programs for the first time, rather than only to distance education programs.

More Work to Be Done

An additional notice of proposed rulemaking based on these same negotiated rulemaking sessions will soon be published, and I would encourage those impacted to submit public comments once the window opens. This notice, currently scheduled for publication in December 2019, will contain amendments impacting credit hour calculations, competency-based education, direct assessment, and regular and substantive interaction between faculty and students in distance education. Such amendments provide additional flexibility to institutions in meeting eligibility requirements with programs that do not fit the traditional mold so long as they have accreditor support and satisfy certain quality standards. Institutions may be more open to education models that seek to address a more diverse population of students, including competency-based programs, stackable credentials, and policies for awarding credit for prior experiences.  

Finally, I believe additional policy reform is needed in the area of professional licensure. Like authorization requirements, educational prerequisites for licensure vary by state and create significant administrative burden for postsecondary institutions as well as stress and confusion for students who would prefer not to be tethered to one state. Absent improvements, mobile students and schools that serve them are due to spend another year attempting to navigate an incredibly complex landscape of licensure eligibility. As distance education policy continues to evolve in a direction of increased flexibility for students, policy initiatives that simplify licensure while preserving the role of states in regulating occupations would fit right in.