Thank you to Kathryn Kerensky of WCET’s State Authorization Network for today’s blog, and thank you to Van Davis and Emilie Cook of Every Learner Everywhere for assistance and strategic direction. Enjoy!


There is a role for everyone to play for higher education institutions to foster inclusive learning environments and increase access to the opportunities provided by higher education. For those in compliance roles, especially those without much direct interaction with students, it may be more difficult to conceptualize and articulate the impact that compliance work can have on equity and accessibility. However, policymaking and compliance planning decisions have very real impacts on students.

In today’s blog post, staff of the State Authorization Network and Every Learner Everywhere write about how compliance staff can incorporate equitable policymaking into their work and create more comprehensive solutions to the issues that underlie regulatory and policy changes while still planning for and achieving technical compliance. 

In discussing equity and equitable policy and decisionmaking, it is important to start from a place of shared understanding of these terms. The authors of this blog understand the term equity as follows:

The intentional practice of identifying and dismantling unjust structures, policies, and practices that perpetuate systemic oppression based on but not limited to race, gender, ethnicity, language, ability, sexual orientation, and/or religion, to establish corrective justice actions to realize students’ academic and social mobility goals (Achieving the Dream, 2022). See The Equity Review Tool for more.

Specific to the incorporation of equity into your policymaking and planning, consider what it means to be equitable. In Getting Started with Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders, developed by Intentional Futures and Every Learner Everywhere, a WCET network partner, authors explain that “equity is achieved when the varied needs of people are considered when developing programming, policies, and pedagogies. While equality is often deployed in the interests of placation and pacification, equity is deployed in the interest of empowerment for traditionally disempowered peoples.”

Washington DC at night.

Regulatory and policy compliance are important institutional objectives. Postsecondary institutions are subject to a myriad of federal and state laws and regulations, in addition to meeting standards of institutional and programmatic accreditors. These laws relate to business practices, data privacy and protection, consumer protection and information, and institutional approval. The U.S. Department of Education is the agency of the federal government that establishes policy for, administers, and coordinates most federal assistance to education, to ensure the integrity of Title IV, Higher Education Act programs. Given the number of laws and regulations that apply to higher education institutions, there can be institutional challenges to implementing plans for compliance.

For institutions that offer distance education, these legal obligations could extend beyond the home state of the institution. States maintain the authority to regulate out-of-state postsecondary institutions that offer or participate in activities located in their state to protect students as consumers, the public, and other interests of the state.

Consequences for noncompliance may vary per state, but could include fines, accreditation problems, lawsuits, cease and desist letters, barring licensure for regulated professions, and even the concern of bad publicity for the institution. Additionally, noncompliance with federal Title IV regulations could result in loss of federal financial aid eligibility and fines, among others.

It is important to understand and appreciate the legal, financial, and institutional consequences of noncompliance as a motivating factor for compliance. To move into creating equitable and student-outcome-driven processes, rather than having compliance plans center around end goals of achieving technical compliance with the given law or regulation, consider how equitable and accessible processes can be imbedded into your compliance work to optimize the learning experience and maximize the student experience for all.

The Insufficiency of Technical Compliance: Student Experiences and Perceptions

There are times when technical compliance could be insufficient from the student experience perspective. In some cases, it may be that an institution complies with or meets an accommodation request; however, that may not be enough to make students with disabilities feel included. For example, consider compliance with the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A study to measure student perceptions of accessibility found that, though the campus was found to be compliant with the ADA, there were several areas identified for improvement based on the perceptions of students.  

In other cases, the process to request and receive the accommodations themselves may pose barriers. In the 2020 EDUCAUSE Student Survey, some students rated their experience with institutional accommodations fair or poor because the process to apply was difficult or lengthy, there was a lack of timeliness in receiving the needed accommodations, and/or there was a lack of awareness of policy or a lack of discretion.

Further, it is important to note that, although online learning has many advantages, it is not automatically accessible. In fact, online learning can exacerbate some challenges, such as incompatibility with assistive technology. Automated test proctoring may also adversely impact students with disabilities as the software may erroneously flag students as suspicious based on disability-specific movement, speech, and cognitive processing, or based on the use of assistive technology.

Changing the mindset from reactive to proactive may go a long way in terms of making long lasting progress for accessibility. Appreciate that accommodations such as virtual class meetings, captions, and class recordings can benefit all students and lead to more flexible and equitable learning experiences so long as the accommodations are thoughtfully implemented.

The concept of universal design is one example of a move from reactive to proactive accessibility. As stated by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, “Universal Design” is the “design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” By considering the following seven key principles of universal design in the design of products, environments, processes, and services, institutions can ensure that the designs are inclusive for diverse users:

  • Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and intuitive. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and space for approach and use. The design provides appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Universal Design can also apply to the design of learning experiences and student services at institutions of higher education. According to CAST (2018) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of guidelines that support teaching and learning and can be applied to reduce barriers and maximize learning opportunities. The concept of UDL is founded on research in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

Beyond Technical Compliance: Reframing the Conversation

While it is initially important to check the boxes to achieve technical compliance, compliance is not the end goal. Consider that the goal is to leverage compliance strategies to achieve institution-specific objectives around advancing accessibility and improving student outcomes and experiences.

In developing strategies and solutions, institutional compliance staff want to consider equity-driven, comprehensive strategies that account for the impact that each proposed solution will have on all student populations. This starts with not only a change in mindset and how the conversation is framed to focus as much on what is required and how to achieve compliance, but also on considering the why. What is the policy rationale for this legal/regulatory requirement? What is the issue that the state or federal regulator is seeking to address with this requirement?

As an example, for those familiar with the current federal regulations relating to notifications and disclosures for professional licensure programs, consider the U.S. Department of Education’s rationale in placing the onus on institutions rather than students. The Preamble to the 2019 federal rulemaking mentions that, while it may be true that students have the same access to State licensure requirements as the institution, students may not have access to the requisite information to determine whether the program meets those requirements without assistance from the program and curriculum experts at the institution. Essentially, it comes down to transparency to ensure that students may successfully achieve their educational objectives at the institution of their choice by having been provided full and accurate information about the programs in which they may enroll.

Once you consider the spirit of the law and the issues it is meant to address, you can move forward with developing policies and plans that address those issues fully and equitably.

Key Considerations in Developing Equitable Compliance Plans and Policies

It is important to keep in mind that not all matters of regulatory or policy compliance may have an obvious connection to equity or accessibility. Think broadly about how a particular policy or process may impact all student populations to ensure that they do not have unintended negative consequences that could disproportionately impact a specific subset or subsets of students.

In considering the policymaking process, we can revisit the three principles of UDL as a helpful thematic lens in developing an equitable policymaking process that works for your institution:

  • Provide multiple means of engagement
  • Provide multiple means of representation
  • Provide multiple means of action & expression
A photo of a gavel on a keyboard representing a legal finding in a technology-based case.
Photo credited by pixabay.com

Involve a truly diverse representation of the impacted populations in the planning, development, and implementation of policies and procedures. Consider how the student perspective can be included and institutionalize student voice in administrative policymaking practice. In what ways can students be empowered to be involved in the process and ensure that their voices are heard? For example, could students be involved in the review of consumer information disclosures to provide feedback on how information is understood by those for whom it is intended? Students could be included in commissions, working groups, stakeholder meetings, among other active roles in the process.

While there is immense value in seeing concrete examples of how to integrate concepts into actual processes, we want to encourage readers and policymakers to consider the following discussion on the value of diverse representation, informed data, and regular evaluation and impact assessments as well as how these factors would inform your institution’s processes.

Representation

Although there is not necessarily one right way to involve students, prioritize seeking feedback and removing barriers to participation in the policymaking and planning process that you identify. It cannot be assumed that everyone has the same capacity to participate without analyzing the limitations to fully participate and engage and take the necessary steps to remove the barriers to equitable participation. Barriers to participation could include not only logistical issues such as the location and timing of meetings but also issues relating to income inequality. Unpaid engagement in the policymaking process is a commitment that many may not be able to make and could lead to key stakeholders being left out of the process.

Information could also be a barrier to full participation in that there may be an unequal access to, or knowledge of, critical contextual or background information. It is important to provide all relevant information in a way such that it is equally perceptible to all and conveyed in a clearly understood form.

Data

To ensure adequate representation and fully informed policymaking requires empirical and disaggregated data to inform decision-making and develop positively impactful policy. Disaggregating data means breaking down data by race, language, income, and other important demographics to contextualize data analysis, support thorough analysis and strategies, and customize those strategies as needed to best support specific populations of students.

For example, consider how effective disclosure of consumer information such as graduation rates, earnings, and debt may be to inform student choice. The College Scorecard is a resource designed to help prospective students by making information on student outcomes accessible. One study found that some white and Asian students changed application behavior in response to the data in the Scorecard; however, the same study did not find that the data had any significant impact on the college choices of Black or Hispanic students. If an institution was considering information sharing alone as a compliance strategy, it should note the disparate impacts it could have based on student demographics and consider what other options may be available to reach equitable outcomes.

Impact Assessments and Evaluations

To this end, an institution could include an equity impact assessment as part of its policy or procedure development process to consider this information at the beginning of the process and devise and revise plans in ways that advance equity. An impact assessment could consider whether a policy or procedure may lead to bias, barriers, exclusions, or other adverse impacts to any specific student population(s).

Finally, support the post-implementation sustainability of the policy with regular evaluation and adjustments as needed to meet the spirit and intent of the legal or regulatory requirement at issue. The institution should demonstrate a willingness to commit necessary resources of time, money, and people to ensure that equity is prioritized in all institutional activities, including compliance planning and policymaking.

Checklist of Considerations for Institutional Compliance Staff for your Policy Development Processes

  1. Familiarize yourself with the policy reasons for the regulatory/compliance requirement.
  2. Frame policy development and compliance solutions around the student experience.
  3. Formalize means to enhance meaningful participation in policy development from all impacted communities
  4. Institutionalize student voice in administrative practice and in policy examples: include students in commissions, working groups, and stakeholder meetings and delegate some responsibilities and decisionmaking to students.
  5. Disaggregate data for appropriate contextual analysis and for optimal planning and decision-making. Disaggregate data to the highest extent possible to prevent the erasure of student populations.
  6. Conduct equity impact assessments to consider how a proposed policy or compliance strategy may have disproportionate negative impacts by specific subsets of the student population.
  7. Ensure that policy and procedure language uses inclusive, simple, and intuitive language and instructions (you may review the Equity Review Tool for examples of strength-based and equity-minded language, among other guides to help you integrate an equity mindset into your institution’s work).

WCET, SAN & ELE appreciate hearing stories of institutional and student experiences. If you are interested in collaborating or have experiences or practices to share, please reach out! We love to hear from you at san-info@wiche.edu.

The State Authorization Network (SAN) empowers members to successfully resolve regulatory challenges to improve student protections in digital learning across state lines. Benefits of SAN membership center on timely updates, analysis, training, and member interactions. Members count on SAN to keep them up to date on regulatory and policy changes for interstate compliance, analysis to understand the impact on institutions, and for the development of strategies to manage compliance. If you are interested in membership, please review the Membership webpage on the SAN website. Every Learner Everywhere is a network of twelve partner organizations with expertise in evaluating, implementing, scaling, and measuring the efficacy of education technologies, curriculum and course design strategies, teaching practices, and support services that personalize instruction for students in blended and online learning environments. Our mission is to help institutions use new technology to innovate teaching and learning, with the ultimate goal of improving learning outcomes for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, poverty-affected students, and first-generation students. Our collaborative work aims to advance equity in higher education centers on the transformation of postsecondary teaching and learning. We build capacity in colleges and universities to improve student outcomes with digital learning through direct technical assistance, timely resources and toolkits, and ongoing analysis of institution practices and market trends. For more information about Every Learner Everywhere and its collaborative approach to equitize higher education through digital learning, visit everylearnereverywhere.org.

Kathryn Kerensky

Director, Digital Learning Policy & Compliance, State Authorization Network


kkerensky@wiche.edu

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