By Phil Hill
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.
As part of DOE’s negotiated rulemaking process over the past half year representatives from schools (Columbia University, Youngstown State University, Benedict College, Santa Barbara City College, Clemson University, MIT, Capella University) to higher ed associations (WCET) were unanimous in their rejection of the proposed State Authorization rules. As Russ Poulin wrote for WCET:
On Tuesday May 20, the Committee we had our final vote on the proposed language. I voted “no.” I was joined in withholding consent by all the representatives of every higher education sector. Nine out of sixteen negotiators voting “no” is a high ratio.
Note that only one of the mentioned groups is a for-profit university – the purported offenders causing the need for the regulations. I wrote a post arguing that the proposed rules represented a dramatic increase in control over distance education that would cause a significant increase in compliance and administrative overhead for both colleges / universities and for states themselves.
In the end, predictably, the rulemaking process ended in a lack of consensus that allows the DOE to propose whatever language they desire. The latest proposal was from DOE, and it would make sense for the final proposal to follow this language closely.
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. As the intro states [emphasis added]:
The member institutions of our three organizations are leaders in the practice of providing quality postsecondary distance education to students throughout the nation and the world. Our organizations represent the vast majority of institutions that are passionate about distance education across the country and across all higher education sectors.
For the first time our organizations are joining with one voice to express our concern over the Department of Education’s “state authorization for distance education” proposal(1) that was recently rejected by most of the members of the Program Integrity and Improvement Negotiated Rulemaking Committee. Our comments are focused on the final draft proposal presented to the Committee. We believe the final draft represents the most current thinking of Department staff as they construct a regulation for public comment.
We are eager to promote policies and practices that protect consumers and improve the educational experience of the distance learner. Unfortunately, the final draft regulation would achieve neither of those goals.
The impact of the proposed regulations would be large-scale disruption, confusion, and higher costs for students in the short-term. In addition, there would be no long-term benefits for students. This letter briefly outlines our concerns and provides recommendations that achieve the Department’s goals without disrupting students enrolling in distance education programs across state lines.
As an example of the problems with the latest proposal:
Second, when pressed to define an “active review,” the Department provided a short list of criteria that states could use in the review, such as submitting a fiscal statement or a list of programs to be offered in the state. While it may sound simple to add a few review criteria, state regulators cannot act arbitrarily. Their authorization actions must be based on state laws and regulations. Therefore, state laws would need to be changed and the state regulators would need to add staff to conduct the necessary reviews. Our analysis estimates that 45 states would need to make these changes. This is a large amount of activity and added costs for what appears to be a “cursory” review. These reviews will likely not change a decision regarding an institution’s eligibility in a state. There is no benefit for the student.
The letter does not just list objections but also offers eight concrete recommendations that would help DOE achieve its stated goals.
Michael and I fully endorse this letter and also call on the DOE to rethink its position.