Distance Education Policy: Our Comment on the Education Department's Proposed Regulations

Originally published on August 26, 2016 at Blackboard

Earlier this week Blackboard joined together with eight other organizations committed to distance education to co-sign a letter to the Department of Education on proposed regulations that could impact distance education programs. Collectively we represent over 3,000 colleges and universities, all committed to providing students with access to high quality distance education programs.

The background

The Department of Education recently took another step in a journey it started in 2010 to provide closer regulatory oversight on out of state distance education authorization. In July, the Department released its proposed regulations on “state authorization of postsecondary distance education and foreign locations.”

For a great summary of the proposed regulations and background on how we got here, take a look at the posts here and here that Russ Poulin, Director of Policy and Analysis at WCET and member of the 2014 negotiated rulemaking committee, wrote.

Who signed the letter

What we wrote

In our letter, we expressed our pleasure in seeing the Department of Education revert back to the intentions of the original regulatory language proposed in 2010. All of the partners believe that distance education can provide many students with access to quality educational opportunities. And we are also equally committed to making sure that those students are informed and protected consumers of education. We believe that these proposed regulations will improve transparency and consumer protection for students. However, we shared with the Department a few clarifications that we believe are needed to prevent unintended consequences.

Reciprocity and consumer protection

The Department now recognizes reciprocity agreements as a way for institutions to obtain approval to offer programs to students in other states. The largest of these reciprocity agreements, NC-SARA, has the support of 41 states and the District of Columbia with several others states slated to join later this year. We asked the Department of Education to provide a definition of “consumer protection laws” that is aligned with the one SARA uses.

State complaint processes

It’s important that every student knows how they can lodge a complaint against their institution should something go wrong. Unfortunately, not every state has a clear process to do this. We asked the Department to identify the states that do not have adequate student complaint processes and allow students in those states to use the complaint process in their institution’s home state until a permanent solution can be found. This would allow students to continue to access programs and financial aid while the challenges are being resolved.

Student notifications

It’s important for all students, whether enrolled in distance education or face-to-face programs, to have all of the information necessary to make informed decisions about their educational programs. That’s why we support the Department’s proposed regulations to inform students if their program will not lead to licensure in their state. However, we believe that the Department has underestimated the amount of time it will take institutions and state agencies to sort this out and inform students so we asked the Department to delay implementing this regulation while institutions work on compliance. We also asked the Department to define “adverse action” so that it will be clear to institutions what they need to disclose to students.

The Department of Education will be taking all of the comments made into consideration and plans to release final regulations by December 31. Depending on when the final regulations are released, they could take effect as early as July 1, 2018.

Blackboard was pleased to work with this outstanding group of organizations on what we believe is a significant issue for institutions and students across the United States. We are looking forward to continuing this work and being a part of the national conversations around access to affordable and high quality education for all students.