On June 4, several leading higher education organizations jointly submitted a letter to the Department of Education outlining concerns and support for recent regulatory proposals.

The letter focuses on proposals discussed during the Department’s Program Integrity and Institutional Quality negotiated rulemaking sessions. It addresses suggested new compliance requirements for postsecondary distance education courses and programs. The organizations, including WCET, jointly detailed concerns about those proposals and state support for other recommendations discussed in rulemaking.

Higher education organizations jointly suggest alternatives to recent rulemaking proposals for distance education courses and programs and voice support for other proposals.

Our main concerns focus on proposals to:

  • require attendance-taking for all distance education courses, and,
  • disallow asynchronous courses in clock-hour programs.

We understand the Department’s goals to protect students as consumers and to safeguard Title IV financial aid expenditures.

For our areas of concern, we suggest alternative pathways to reach the Department’s objectives.

This letter is the second of two letters sent to the Department on behalf of these partners. The May 1, 2024 letter addressed proposals regarding reciprocity agreements for state authorization that were discussed during this same rulemaking.

The Partners in the Letter

WCET and the State Authorization Network (SAN) partnered with OLC, Quality Matters, and UPCEA to highlight concerns that our members have raised. We are also pleased to be supported by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

The Issues Where We Raised Concerns

The letter focuses on issues that concern the institutions that are our WCET and SAN members. There is also considerable attention to the impact the proposals will have on our students. The two concerns from the rulemaking proposals are:

  • Require Attendance-taking for All Distance Education Courses –
    • Proposed During Rulemaking: Currently, institutions are to determine the “last date of attendance” for a student who withdraws from an institution without notice. For distance education courses, logins do not count. The institution is required to provide evidence of the student’s last date of “academic engagement” (e.g., taking a test, submitting a paper, participating in an online discussion about course content). The Department is concerned that some institutions are not calculating the “last date of attendance” properly or are gaming the calculation for institutional financial gain. 
    • Concerns: Although requested by negotiators, almost no data on the extent of non-compliance instances was presented. The Department posited that this would “simplify” the calculations. With the exception of institutions that are fully online or already are attendance-taking institutions, everyone we contacted has indicated this would be far more work to obtain the same proof of academic engagement as most institutions already successfully provide. Also, the requirement to document a student’s withdrawal after 14 days of no academic engagement has been cited as adding more work and not being friendly to non-traditional students.
  • Disallow Asynchronous Courses in Clock Hour Programs –
    • Proposed During Rulemaking: For institutions using the clock-hour method of financial aid distribution, the Department is concerned that many institutions were not properly tracking the time spent by students in asynchronous instructional activities. The Department proposed disallowing asynchronous courses in clock-hour programs. This would NOT have any impact on asynchronous courses in credit hour institutions.
    • Concerns: The Department noted that some institutions have spent considerable time and money to comply. Punishing them for the non-compliance of others seems unwise.

The Issues We Support, With Some Caveats

Our letter expresses our support for some of the proposals discussed during rulemaking:

  • Redefining the accreditation thresholds for “substantive change” reviews for distance education programs. A caveat is that the review for institutions that enroll 50% or more of their students at a distance (as they define it) will probably include the great majority of institutions.
  • Defining a distance education course. This is a good first step to cleaning up the confusing multiplicity of distance education definitions used by the Department.
  • Categorizing distance education programs into a “virtual location.” This will mainly help the Department collect data about distance education, but our caveat is our concern about how the Department will interpret that data.

A Call to Action

As advocated in a previous WCET Frontiers blog post, we urged distance education institutions to take action. That blog post includes links to four issue papers that you can use for additional information.

If you have opinions on the proposals highlighted in this letter or our previous one, we urge you to act now.

In a recent webcast, Department personnel asked for stories on the impact of these proposals. They need your real-world insights about the impact the proposals (if implemented) will have on your institution, your programs, and your students. You should:

  • Review current processes to determine what changes might need to be made should the proposed language be finalized as regulations.
  • Work with your government relations department to contact your federal and state elected officials.
  • Tell a story about how a proposal might affect your institution and your students. What is the impact of curtailing reciprocity? Will taking roll in online courses “simplify” your lives? If you are a clock-hour institution, who will be hurt by disallowing asynchronous courses?

Emails or Letters can be sent to:

Miguel Cardona
Secretary of Education
Miguel.Cardona@ed.gov

James Kvaal
Under Secretary of Education
James.kvaal@ed.gov

U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20202

Waiting for the official comment period will be too late. Let the Department know and inform your elected Representatives and Senators.

Cheryl Dowd, Russ Poulin, and Van Davis

Additional Resources on the 2024 Department of Education Rulemaking



Cheryl Dowd

Senior Director, State Authorization Network & WCET Policy Innovations


cdowd@wiche.edu

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Russ Poulin

Executive Director, WCET & Vice President for Technology-Enhanced Education, WICHE


303-541-0305

rpoulin@wiche.edu

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Van Davis

Chief Strategy Officer, WCET


vdavis@wiche.edu

LinkedIn Profile

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