ED Delays Distance Ed "State Authorization" Rules

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The U.S. Department of Education (ED) missed a November 1 deadline to issue its final rule regulating state authorization for distance education programs. The final rule had to be published by November 1 in order to take effect by next July, in time for the 2017 fall semester. The new rule, if finalized, will apply to all higher education institutions that receive federal student aid and offer distance education and online programs, which collectively enroll 5.5 million students.

ED released the proposed rule on July 25, 2016. It is meant to clarify the requirements institutions must meet for their distance education programs to participate in the Department’s federal student aid programs. The rule states that institutions offering distance education programs that qualify for federal student aid must:

  • be authorized to deliver postsecondary education by each state in which they enroll a student, if such authorization is required by the state;
  • document the state process for resolving student complaints with regards to the distance education programs;
  • disclose to current and prospective students information about adverse actions taken against the school, its refund policies, and whether the program meets the  state’s licensure or certification requirements, if relevant; and
  • receive authorization from any appropriate foreign government agency for academic programs offered in a given country.

The rule explicitly recognizes state authorization reciprocity agreements, such as SARA, as a way in which institutions can meet ED’s regulatory requirements. It stipulates, however, that a state reciprocity agreement works for this purpose so long as it does not interfere with a participating state’s consumer protection laws.

The Obama Administration has tried to finalize these rules several times over the last six years. By missing the latest deadline, though, finalization and implementation of the rules will be pushed into the next administration, should it choose to do so.

On August 24, EDUCAUSE joined several other higher education associations and organizations in submitting comments on the proposed rule. More information on those comments can be found here.

Jen Ortega serves as a consultant to EDUCAUSE on federal policy and government relations. She has worked with EDUCAUSE since 2013 and assists with monitoring legislative and regulatory proposals across a range of policy areas, including cybersecurity, data privacy, e-learning, and accessibility.