In March we alerted you to two proposed changes to U.S. Department of Education regulations from its Negotiated Rulemaking process earlier this year. These proposals would have a great impact on the digital / distance learning world, if implemented. The proposed changes were:
Professional Licensure – Currently, institutions are required to notify students if its program meets, does not meet, or the institution has not determined that it meets the educational requirements for the state in which the student is located. The proposed rule would require the program to “ensure” that the program meets the state educational requirements, if any. To “ensure” that the program meets the requirements would protect students but is a standard that is difficult to achieve for some states and programs.
State Authorization Reciprocity – Institutions could still use a reciprocity agreement to obtain institutional approval to serve students in a participating state. However, the institution would be eligible to disburse Federal (Title IV) financial aid to students in a state only if that reciprocity agreement complies “with all State consumer protection laws, including both generally applicable State laws and those specific to educational institutions…” This adds the requirement for institutions to meet laws specific to educational institutions, which will increase student protections is some states. On the other hand, it could negate reciprocity and will likely increase the work and costs for institutions to serve students in many states.
The Breaking News
Unlike cable news networks “breaking news,” this is actually big news that we learned on Wednesday of this week. The above rules were part of proposed updates to the “Certification Procedures.” These are rules contained in the Program Participation Agreement that institutions must sign to be eligible to disburse federal financial aid.
What this means is that they will not release the proposed rules for public comment until next Spring. If they publish the final rule by November 1, 2023, the regulations will go into effect on July 1, 2024.
We will continue to follow these rules and update you.
What Have We Been Doing About Professional Licensure?
We have been working on the behalf of WCET and State Authorization Network members …often behind the scenes.
During the negotiated rulemaking sessions, we were working with two of the negotiators representing consumer protection groups. We sought to create a compromise that would work for all. Cheryl Dowd (Senior Director, State Authorization Network and WCET Policy Innovations) and I advocated for the following principles in this compromise:
If the profession in a state has clear laws or regulations regarding the educational requirements for entering the profession, the institution must meet those expectations.
The determination of whether the laws or regulations for a profession are met is made at the time of “initial enrollment” of the student.
An institution should not be held to meet the requirements where it is unable to do so. There are some states without rules or without the staff to make a determination for an institution. An institution should not be held to rules that are not there or to which the state will not engage in discussion about whether the institution is in compliance.
Students should be allowed to opt into a program. Given today’s mobile society or populations located on state borders, there are many reasons why a student may wish to enroll in a program that is unable to “ensure” that it meet the educational requirements where the student is currently located.
Engaging Professional Licensure Associations, State Licensing Agencies, and Professional Accrediting Agencies
Cheryl Dowd, has contacted many associations of state licensing agencies for different professions. She has also talked to individuals at some specific state agencies. Many of them were unaware of the proposed rules or the possible impact that it could have on their agencies.
Cheryl’s persistence helped several organizations within a health profession to coordinate with each other. Eventually, they gained a meeting with Education Department leadership.
Engaging Other Organizations
Several of the higher education presidential and leadership organizations are assembling a series of recommendations to the Department regarding the proposed rules. We contributed extensively to the wording in that letter regarding the anticipated professional licensure language.
Cheryl just returned from a meeting of the Council of State Governments and the National Council of State Legislators regarding licensure compacts that provide portability of a license to other compact member states for individuals who already possess a license from a state agency. She continually raised the issue about the need for increased communication between state licensing boards and postsecondary institutions to address portability of the education at the pre-licensure stage. We are already strategizing next steps about who else needs to be engaged.
We have presented on these issues several times, including at NASASPS – the state regulator organization. We also have talked to several other organizations. Next week, Kathryn Kerensky, Director Digital Learning Policy & Compliance and Cheryl are presenting at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and then we are presenting at the Online Teaching Conference for the California Community Colleges and we will certainly raise this issue.
If you are getting the idea that Cheryl has been a bulldog on this issue, you are reading that correctly.
What Have We Been Doing About Reciprocity?
NC-SARA and the four regional higher education compacts (MHEC, NEBHE, SREB, & WICHE) have led the charge on this issue. Especially for WICHE and the compacts, we have provided input and advice.
During the negotiated rulemaking sessions, we provided background information and suggestions to several of the institutional negotiators. None of them had any background on this issue.
Engaging Other Organizations
We were asked to contribute to the higher education presidential and leadership organizations’ recommendations to the Department. Again, we provided extensive suggested language for that letter regarding the anticipated reciprocity language.
We have presented on these issues several times and have talked to several organizations.
Our Take on Reciprocity
Our take has been that the proposed regulation would improve consumer protection in a few states, but will make SARA a less valuable option for several states and institutions. If states drop out, consumer protection could actually lessen. We are also sure that underfunded and low-in-personnel state agencies will be ill-prepared to handle the resulting onslaught of requests from hundreds (thousands?) of institutions.
We also wonder how the Department might enforce this rule if it were to go into effect. Let’s say that a reciprocity agreement does not comply. Will they deny aid to the students from institutions in the 40+ states participating in the agreement? We are unclear how this rule could be enforced. Due to the limitations on what the Department can regulate, it is focused on institutions but the intent seems to actually be to regulate states.
NC-SARA will soon update its policy process. And they need improved policies. Our recommendation is for the Department to work with states, the compacts, and NC-SARA to improve consumer protections through reciprocity. By doing that, protections will reach nearly every corner of the country. And that’s a better option than improving protections in just a few states.
The Department now has ample time to work with states on both these issues.
And we’re happy to help.
Our Message to Members
We’re doing lots of work behind the scenes. It’s not flashy. It’s not in the press.
We’re working to improve consumer protections for students.
Russ Poulin is the executive director for WCET. He directs the team’s work in supporting the efforts of postsecondary institutions from all 50 states with a focus on the policy and practice of digital learning. He is a highly sought-after expert and leader regarding policy issues for distance education and on-campus uses of educational technologies. As WICHE vice president for technology-enhanced education, he advises on policy and projects for the regional higher education compact. Russ’s commitment to the field is continually noted, and he was honored to have represented the distance education community on federal negotiated rulemaking committees and subcommittees. Russ has received recognition from the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the Presidents’ Forum, Excelsior College, and the National University Technology Network (NUTN) for his contributions to postsecondary digital education and educational policy.
Russ received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado Denver and holds a master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado. For no discernible reason, Russ also writes movie reviews for WCET members. As a movie enthusiast, Russ is most fascinated with characters and plots that surprise him. In addition, Russ is a recovering trivia guy who is also partial to cats and to his wife, Laurie.
Cheryl joined WCET in August of 2015 as the director of the State Authorization Network. She currently serves as the senior director, policy innovations. She directs the overall activities of WCET’s State Authorization Network (SAN), including coordination of staff addressing interstate policy and compliance, along with other ancillary compliance issues. As senior director, Cheryl also serves the overall WCET membership in addressing emerging and special regulatory issues related to digital learning in postsecondary education. She brings extensive experience in education and compliance to the WCET team and is a contributing author for State Authorization of Colleges and Universities, a guidebook for understanding the legal basis for State and Federal compliance for activities of postsecondary institutions.
Cheryl holds a Juris Doctorate from the University of Richmond, a master’s degree in criminal justice from Bowling Green State University, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from James Madison University. She is the mother of four kids, all of whom have been instrumental in helping her develop new interests in theatre, hockey, and figure skating. Outside of work, Cheryl enjoys spending time with her family and is an avid fan of movies and TV shows written by Aaron Sorkin.