Is the DOE backing down on proposed State Authorization regulations?

Now witness the firepower of this fully written and delivered WCET / UPCEA /Sloan-C letter!

– D. Poulin

One of the policies that we’re tracking at e-Literate is the proposed State Authorization regulation that the US Department of Education (DOE) has been pushing. The latest DOE language represents a dramatic increase in federal control of distance education and in bureaucratic compliance required of institutions and states. In the most recent post we shared a letter from WCET, UPCEA and Sloan-C to Secretary Duncan at the DOE.

What does it take to get all of the higher education institutions and associations to agree? Apparently the answer is for the Department of Education to propose its new State Authorization regulations. [snip]

Here’s what is newsworthy – the idea and proposed language is so damaging to innovation in higher ed (which the DOE so fervently supports in theory) and so burdensome to institutions and state regulators that three higher ed associations have banded together to oppose the proposed rules. WCET (WICHE Cooperative on Educational Technologies), UPCEA (University Professional and Continuing Education Association) and Sloan-C (Sloan Consortium) wrote a letter to Secretary Arne Duncan calling for the DOE to reconsider their planned State Authorization regulations.

While it is unclear how direct an impact the letter had, yesterday brought welcome news from Ted Mitchell at the DOE: they have effectively paused their efforts to introduce new State Authorization regulations. As described at Inside Higher Ed:

The Obama administration is delaying its plan to develop a controversial rule that would require online programs to obtain approval from each and every state in which they enroll students, a top Education Department official said Wednesday.

Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said that the administration would not develop a new “state authorization” regulation for distance education programs before its November 1 deadline.
“We, for all intents and purposes, are pausing on state authorization,” Mitchell said during remarks at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation conference. “It’s complicated, and we want to get it right.”

Mitchell said he wanted make sure the regulation was addressing a “specific problem” as opposed to a general one. The goal, he said, should be to promote consumer protection while also allowing for innovation and recognizing that “we do live in the 21st century and boundaries don’t matter that much.”

It gets better. Mitchell made this statement while at a workshop for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and his speech mentioned his desire to clean up some of the regulatory burden on accrediting agencies. As described at the Chronicle:

Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, told attendees at a workshop held by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation that accreditors’ acceptance of more responsibility over the years for monitoring colleges had created “complicated expectations for institutions, regulators, politicians, and the public.”

Much of the work accreditors do to ensure that colleges comply with federal regulations is “less appropriate to accreditors than it may be to the state or federal government,” said Mr. Mitchell, who is the No. 2 official in the Department of Education and oversees all programs related to postsecondary education and federal student aid.

“If I could focus on a spot today,” he said, “it would be the compliance work and seeing if we could relieve accreditors of the burden of taking that on for us.”

This is just a speech, and we do not know what the DOE will eventually propose (or not) on State Authorization. But it is certainly a welcome sign that the department has heard the concerns of many in the higher education community.

Update: See Russ Poulin’s blog post at WCET with more context and inside info.

WCET joined with Sloan-C and UPCEA to write a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Under Secretary Mitchell about our concerns with the direction the Department was taking and to give recommendations on how the Department might proceed. I have also been talking with numerous groups and individuals that have been writing their own letters or have used their contacts.

On Tuesday of this week, Marshall Hill (Executive Director of the National Council on State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements) and some high-ranking members of the National Council leadership board met with Mr. Mitchell. According to Marshall, Mr. Mitchell was aware of many of the concerns that they raised and was very supportive of reciprocity. From that meeting, Mr. Mitchell indicated that more work needed to be done, but did not suggest the delay.

Mr. Mitchell’s reference in the Inside Higher Ed article about addressing a “specific problem” showed that our message was being heard.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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