One Year Anniversary of the Federal Regulations for Professional Licensure Notifications – How are you Celebrating?

Maybe it is a little cheeky to say celebrating, but we are all on this crazy journey together to manage these institutional requirements. The federal regulations require notifications in order for institutions to participate in Title IV HEA programs, and SARA closely aligned their requirements to the Federal regulations for SARA participating institutions to address programs subject to SARA policy. Our colleagues, Jeannie Yockey-Fine with NC-SARA and Shari Miller with Institutional Compliance Matters are back with me again today to help me celebrate this anniversary by sharing the notifications story including the purpose, what is required, the history, challenges, a wish list to help with compliance, and resources to help with compliance management.


The purpose of these notifications is transparency to protect and support students pursuing a required professional license or certification to be employed in an occupation. In this 21st century mobile society we see student movement to other states to enroll face-to-face in licensure programs as well as increasing numbers of licensure programs provided by distance education to students living across the country. With the varying educational requirements in each state for each profession, the students are at risk of not completing necessary educational requirements in a state in order to obtain a license or certification. The age-old notion of completely placing the responsibility on the student to research the requirements in a state is no longer acceptable, as the stakes are too high.

What is Required?

Analysis of the federal regulations has been provided through many WCET|State Authorization Network available resources and WCET Frontiers posts. However, along with the analysis, you are strongly urged to review the specific language of the federal regulations, 34 CFR 668.43(a)(5)(v) and 34 CFR 668.43(c), regarding institutional notifications for educational programs leading to a license or certificate.

A snapshot of the four key elements of the notification requirements:

  1. Notifications are for educational programs delivered by all modalities (includes face-to-face!),
  2. The type of educational program is defined in the regulation (designed for specific professional license required for employment or advertised as sufficient in a state).
  3. Public Notifications regarding the curriculum meeting state educational requirements in ALL states (list of states does, does not, or no determination made about the curriculum meeting state educational requirements).
  4. Direct Notifications in writing and individualized to the student and their location (to prospective students, if does not meet or no determination. To enrolled student, if does not meet).

Additionally, for purposes of programs subject to SARA policy, the institution must additionally comply with SARA Manual Section 5.2. Institutions participate in SARA to obtain state institutional approval through reciprocity to offer distance education in other SARA member states. Although reciprocity through SARA does not extend to professional licensing requirements, SARA participation requires that institutions satisfy all federal requirements for notifications as described above. This requirement applies to non-Title IV institutions, as well. Additionally, SARA policy directs that when institutions are unable, after all reasonable efforts, to determine if the curriculum meets state educational requirements, the institution must provide the current contact information of the applicable licensing board where the student is located and advise the student to make a determination.

How did we get here?

Federal Regulations

During the Department’s negotiated rulemaking in 2014, the committee addressed notifications for licensure programs. Specifically, the committee considered notifications regardless of modality and the requirement of a written acknowledgment that the student understands if the program does not fulfill the educational requirements in the student’s state. This rulemaking did not come to consensus. However, it was the basis for the Department to write the notifications rule that was released in December 2016 at the end of the Obama administration.

The state authorization and notifications regulations released in December 2016 were fraught with problematic issues, to say the least. The regulation addressing professional licensure notifications 34 CFR 668.50 required notifications for programs solely offered by distance education and were focused only where the institution’s enrolled students reside. Individualized disclosures were required if the program did not meet licensure prerequisites. The new regulation maintained the negotiated rulemaking committee’s idea to keep the required written student acknowledgment if the curriculum did not meet state educational requirements where the prospective student “resides.” We could talk all day about the challenges for implementation of these regulations caused by the language.

Because the regulations were released after November 1, 2016, the regulatory calendar required that the effective date of these regulations not occur until July 1, 2018. During that time, there was little information coming out of the new Trump administration in terms of guidance despite many inquiries and the Department’s request for public comment on regulations to be reviewed and revised. As the regulations were about to become effective in July 2018, the Department delayed the rules for review and revision. New rulemaking was announced in August 2018 and came to consensus in April 2019. Just weeks after consensus, while were awaiting release of the consensus language as proposed regulations, a U.S. District Court in California ruled that the Department’s delay of the previous federal regulations be vacated. This was a long story about procedural error, but the flawed and painfully difficult to implement regulations became effective starting in late May 2019.

The first package of regulations, which included the professional licensure notifications, was released in June 2019 as proposed regulations subject to public comment. The final regulations were then released by November 1, 2019 to meet the regulatory calendar requirements to become effective the following July 1, 2020. Additionally, the Higher Education Act (HEA) provides the Secretary with the authority to designate new regulations for early implementation. The state authorization and professional licensure notifications regulations were designated for early implementation giving institutions the choice to comply with the new regulations or the then current flawed regulations that became effective due to the U.S. District Court ruling. On July 1, 2020, the professional licensure notifications, as previously described in this article, became the only set of regulations for which institutions must comply to participate in Title IV HEA programs.

SARA Requirements

Throughout the series of events described to develop the federal regulations, institutions that participated in reciprocity for state institutional approval through SARA were already required to provide notifications to students for the courses and programs subject to SARA policy. Although SARA has no effect on state professional licensing requirements, the institutions have always been required to provide licensure notifications through SARA policy and affirmation on the SARA application.

Initially, SARA required that institutions provide a written notification to all students, applicants, and potential students whether the course or program meets the requirements for a state license. If the institution could not confirm whether the program met the requirements, the institution was required to provide the current contact information for the applicable licensing board and advise the student to make a determination.

With the federal regulations becoming effective in July 2020, the NC-SARA Board voted to more closely align the SARA notifications with the notification requirements of the new Federal regulations. SARA Manual Section 5.2 requires that the institutions follow 34 CFR 668.43(a)(5)(v) and 34 CFR 668.43(c) for Title IV and non-Title IV institutions. SARA institutions must now provide general disclosures that were not a requirement before. Additionally, the SARA policy maintained their previous requirement of providing, in the direct notification, the current contact information for any applicable licensing board if the institution is not able to determine if the institution’s curriculum meets the state educational requirements where the student is located.



Research of out-of-state requirements for licensing boards and the challenges of providing the related disclosures has been the topic of many discussions and webinars. The first consideration is to review the regulation closely to determine which programs will require disclosures. Institutions have been creating varying strategies for determining whether their programs will meet requirements in other states. Because this research cannot be completed quickly, some institutions begin with the states that have the most students, or with the programs with most enrollments, or both.

The success of the research can depend on many variables. These can include clarity of the statutes and regulations at the state level, the willingness and availability of staff at the licensing boards to answer questions, and the size of the institution’s compliance team. Creating a process to determine requirements and following that process will be key in making these determinations, and for SARA purposes, meeting the “reasonable effort” requirement.

Institution Buy-in and Collaboration

In addition to determining a process for research, an additional challenge is creating awareness and understanding at departments outside the compliance staff at your institution. Creating a process that is understood and followed, by admissions, marketing, information technology, compliance, those creating curriculum and others will be key.

Tracking Student Location

None of the processes mentioned above will work without careful tracking of where your students are located prior to a financial commitment to the program and when they enroll in these programs.

Tracking of students is essential for state authorization and professional licensure purposes, and a defensible process for knowing where your students are is required. Many institutions have created a policy of checking every term. A process for periodic review for tracking as well as licensing requirements will be essential.

Wish List to Help with Compliance

Because it’s anniversary time, we have chosen to compile a wish list of information and tools that we believe would be of great use for institutions as they continue to move towards compliance with the disclosure requirements.

Guidance from the Department of Education:

The first wish that is shared uniformly by institutions is practical guidance from the Department of Education. While the regulations were generally straightforward, as institutions strive to be in compliance, they may encounter circumstances that are not necessarily addressed as clearly.

Triad Balance:

someone writing a list in a notebook
Photo by @glenncarstenspeters on Unsplash

The triad in education isin theory, where balanced regulatory oversight is provided by the federal government (via the Department of Education), the state government and the accreditor. The key concept is that the regulatory oversight of institutions is “balanced” to ensure that the three legs of the stool are sitting level on the ground. Each party has its own specific area of review and they must be “equally” strong to be effective.

Increased collaboration and communication amongst the three parties would be a good start to ensure consistent evaluation of institutions for quality and positive student outcomes; equally important is that each party is accountable for institutional deficiencies within its regulatory scope and that there is balanced enforcement across sectors when bad actors are involved or where deficiencies are noted. Additionally, it would be helpful if the three parties would collaborate and issue guidance for institutions on what is expected of them in practical terms which could help reduce the number of varying interpretations.

Improved Communication at State Level:

It is important to be mindful that professional licensure boards, who are now key players in this arena, were not invited to the table during negotiated rulemaking and consequently, had no input into their involvement with institutional compliance as required in the regulations. A wish is that state higher education regulatory agencies and state professional boards develop a cooperative relationship and communication structure to provide a coordinated and transparent response to institutions that are seeking information on educational requirements. It would be beneficial to have the professional board websites specifically orient their content on educational requirements to the educators and trainers for the profession, as well as making it easy to locate with minimal effort.

Programmatic Accreditor Involvement:

Programmatic accreditors can be a valuable resource for institutions if the accreditors with involvement in understanding the individual state requirements, by making that information available to its accredited institutions in a consumable manner that aligns with its standards, and by providing additional guidance to their institutions.

A Regulatory Strategy that Addresses Mobile Students:

Addressing consumer protection for students by requiring disclosures about pre-licensure requirements as listed in the federal regulations is a good start but does not address the mobility challenges of our 21st century society as students relocate with much greater frequency than in the past. The Department of Education could provide support by sharing its resources with national and state leaders to ease the burden for students in a pre-licensure program who are relocating, while being cognizant of the various states’ rights to regulate public safety and protect its citizens from harm caused by ill-prepared or unlicensed professionals.

More Work on Post-Licensure Mobility:

On the other side of the coin regarding post-licensure, the Department of Labor and other federal and state agencies have been studying the barriers that licensed professionals face when trying to transport their licensed skills across state lines. There is still much work needed to reduce the obstacles that prevent the licensed professional’s mobility. This is particularly evident with military spouses who are licensed professionals.

Partnering with National Associations of Professional Boards:

There is a consistent plea from institutions for information on educational requirements from professional boards. It would be of great value if national associations of state licensing boards could act as clearinghouses of state regulatory information. At a minimum, these associations should encourage states to develop a structure for transparency for educational requirements on the state websites; optimally, all states should submit their content for listing on the national association website so that an institution can visit that website and quickly determine if the profession regulates the activity in a particular state, followed by the educational requirements in that state.

Two national associations that have been on the forefront of helping institutions with transparent and practical information are nursing and social work. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) has created the State Licensure Requirements in which states submit their regulatory information and educational requirements to the national association to provide a collation of each state’s requirements. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) offers a listing of educational requirements by state as well as fee-based consulting services to institutions to assist in determining if the institution’s social work educational program is in compliance with federal disclosure requirements at Help with federal financial aid disclosure requirements. We can hope that other national associations of professional boards will follow these two leaders which will ultimately save each state professional board much time in responding to repetitious institutional inquiries and will enable institutions to more quickly come into compliance with the disclosure requirements in the federal regulations.

Available Resources

SARA Resources

SAN Resources

Happy Anniversary!

While we still have more to do to engage all of the key stakeholders, we will keep moving forward to communicate and collaborate with professional boards, accreditors, and the Department to support the institutions’ work to be transparent with students. This is definitely a marathon and not a sprint to pull these entities together to play their part to ensure clear information is available. Is there anyone who feels like this is déjà vu from 10 years ago with not fully developed state higher education agency websites to address state requirements for institutional approvals?

On the bright side, we can celebrate the fact the many institutions are doing great work to manage these compliance requirements, many of which are regular contributors to the WCET/State Authorization Network (SAN). Be sure to look for more information as it becomes available from the key stakeholders. We will collate and share the resources they provide.

Happy Anniversary to these regulations!




Distributed Leadership Can Help with Recovery After the Pandemic

Today I am happy to welcome Vickie Cook with the University of Illinois Springfield, who joins us to discuss recent study undertaken on distributed leadership models and the experiences of using such models in our daily educational work. Thank you Vickie for sharing more about this leadership model and your experiences with this approach!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Institutions of higher education must now make plans on how to create stronger and more effective learning opportunities for students in the post pandemic educational environment. It is imperative that those with skill and expertise to address these challenges be able and willing to step up and lead. Distributed leadership may be one approach to consider. This strategy is defined as a leadership approach which focuses on participation across an organization.

Spillane (2006) shared that…

… distributed leadership is an emerging set of ideas that allows leadership to occur both formally and informally throughout an institution. 

Overview of Distributed Leadership

Distributed Leadership builds an institutional culture to allow leader-teams to generate grassroots solutions and initiatives while solving issues. Leader-teams are small groups of employees from across an institution who have a stake in the outcome of the decisions made. These leader-teams should bring the knowledge and expertise related to the topic and a willingness to be responsible for a decision being made and effectively communicated. This can be a very useful model as institutions begin facing the aftermath of the pandemic.

a group of red game pieces sitting away from one single black game piece
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Distributed leadership requires the leader-team to accept responsibility toward a successful resolution of an issue or launching a new initiative. This means the leader-team accepts accountability to their colleagues for decisions, implementation, and outcomes made by the leader-team.

Distributed leadership is powerful because those leading this process hold the expertise and skills to move the institution forward. Positional leadership is not required nor necessarily recommended on the leader-team; however, the positional leaders of the institution must be willing to support leader-teams by allowing the process to work from implementation to fruition.

Benefits of Distributed Leadership Models

The practice of distributed leadership is effective because it reduces focus from a position to a leader-team who has the ability to design, implement, and evaluate the approach in a complex organization. This type of leadership model also allows voices from varied and perhaps conflicting points of view to be heard and appropriately investigate pathways forward for the organization. As higher ed professionals seek to change models of enrollment, instruction, business approaches, as well other highly complex practices and policies in the years following the pandemic, building trust across an organization while allowing for discourse to occur will be vital to a successful recovery.

Promising Practices to Consider When Implementing Distributed Leadership

There are seven areas of practice to consider for a successful distributed leadership process to occur.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay
  1. Build a community of trust and authenticity within and across the organization by explaining the process and seeing it through even though it may first appear to take more time to accomplish your stated objective than more traditional approaches.
  2. Give voice to detractors of the process, the nature of the problem, and the proposed solutions to ensure that inclusiveness is practiced.
  3. Invest in building collaborations and connections across campus to ensure multiple strengths and expertise are brought by the leader-team. Ensure that a strong understanding of the actual problem exists.
  4. Ensure that active listening occurs during planning or implementation of initiatives, and that communication includes a strong feedback loop.
  5. Lean into the ambiguity of the future. No one can make absolute predictions about the future of higher education. However, we do know that students are expecting different outcomes than they did prior to the pandemic. Not knowing a stated outcome creates dissonance, however leaning into ambiguity will assist with the authenticity of creating innovative solutions to the problems we are facing both today and in the future.
  6. Evaluate the planning and implementation process and outcomes of projects/initiatives. Determine what worked, what didn’t, and where changes need to be made for the future. Make those changes toward improvement.

My Own Experiences

In my own leadership practice at the University of Illinois Springfield, I find that having a distributed leadership approach can be especially effective when considering new initiatives and projects. Employing the skills and expertise of a variety of individuals and stakeholders across campus in the communication and decision-making process to move projects forward has delivered positive outcomes. Gathering the individuals who bring the skills needed and the knowledge required to create solid decision-making, as well as provide communication and transparency about both the process and the product may appear to take extra time. However, in my own experience, distributed leadership saves time as communication and building understanding and trust occurs simultaneously. Fewer mistakes are made and more positive outcomes realized. Distributed leadership is one leadership tool, not the only leadership practice to consider as part of leading complex tasks in a university setting.

vickie cook author headshot

Vickie S. Cook
Executive Director, Online, Professional, and Engaged Learning
Research Professor, Educational Leadership
University of Illinois Springfield

Reference and More Resources:

Spillane, J. (2006). Distributed Leadership. Jossey-Bass

More resources on this leadership model can be found at…


Department of Ed Change May Result in More Institutions Needing Distance Education Approvals from Accrediting Agencies

We are just now figuring out that both accrediting agencies and institutions may have more work ahead of them in meeting federal requirements regarding oversight of distance learning programs.

pin board with "change" spelled out
Image by kalhh from Pixabay

Sometimes at first look, we don’t fully comprehend the impact that a change in regulation or Department of Education (the Department) guidance might have out in the real world. And sometimes even with a second look, we might not fully comprehend that impact.

While we do not have all the answers, we thought it was important to highlight an issue brought to our attention and which has raised some important questions about accreditation and distance education.

The Change

In brief, the Department rescinded previous guidance regarding when an institution needed to seek institutional accreditation approval for offering distance education programs. Still in place is the requirement that the accrediting agency itself needs to have distance education as part of its “scope of recognition.”

  • The rescinded guidance: If an institution offered more than 50 percent of its courses via distance education, had more than 50 percent of its students enrolled in distance education, or offered more than 50 percent of an educational program via distance education, its distance education programs were required to be evaluated or approved by an accrediting agency with distance education in its scope of recognition.
  • The new guidance (emphasis added): “…a program offered in whole or in part through telecommunications is eligible for Title IV, HEA program purposes if the program is offered by an institution that is accredited by an agency that has accreditation of distance education within the scope of its recognition…before an institution offers any distance education programs that can be eligible for Title IV, the institution must be evaluated and accredited for its effective delivery of distance education programs by a recognized agency that has distance education within its scope of recognition.”

Cheryl Dowd (WCET’s Senior Director, Policy Innovations) actually covered the rescinded guidance and new guidance in January. The rescission of the Department’s 2006 guidance from Dear Colleague Letter GEN-06-17 was announced in the Federal Register last August. The new Guidance on Accreditation and Eligibility Requirements for Distance Education was released by the Department on January 19, 2021. This date was last full day of the previous presidential administration. When we covered the guidance in January, we were simply reporting on this new guidance. Since that time, we have obtained more information than was originally shared with the guidance.

A Little Background

Many open books in a pile

The change was made due to a review required by President Trump’s Executive Order 13891, which sought to ensure that “Americans are subject to only those binding rules imposed through duly enacted statutes or through regulations lawfully promulgated under them…”

As a result, the analysis showed that the now-rescinded guidance conflicted with 34 CFR 668.8(m), which states:

(m) An otherwise eligible program that is offered in whole or in part through telecommunications is eligible for title IV, HEA program purposes if the program is offered by an institution, other than a foreign institution, that has been evaluated and is accredited for its effective delivery of distance education programs by an accrediting agency or association that—

 (1) Is recognized by the Secretary under subpart 2 of part H of the HEA; and

 (2) Has accreditation of distance education within the scope of its recognition.

Yes, it is ironic that an Executive Order meant at limiting bureaucracy may have added to it.

A Few Questions

In conversations with knowledgeable accreditation and institution personnel, we now understand that there are several questions about this guidance. Additionally, depending on the response to those questions, the impact could be substantial. A few of the questions that we have:

" "
VintageSnipsAndClips – Pixabay
  • Does this mean that every program that has even one course that uses distance education will need to have approval from their accrediting agency for that program?
    • We don’t think so. We think this just expands the number of institutions requiring distance education approval for the institution. But, we are not sure and it will be good to ask.
  • Does the “in whole or in part through telecommunications” mean that courses using any distance education variation are now considered distance education and creates the need for approval of that program? Part of the distance education definition is “to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor or instructors.” Possible variations that could be included: blended learning, hybrid learning, hyflex learning, flipped classroom, adaptive learning, and anything that allows that student / instructor separation.
    • We don’t know.
  • If an institution decides to change the modality of just one course within a program, does it need accreditor approval before making this change?
    • We don’t think so, but it will be good to ask.

Accreditors Authority Regarding Department Minimum Requirements & COVID Flexibilities

The Department provides minimum requirements that must be addressed by accreditors in order for institutions to participate in Title IV HEA programs. The institutional accreditors have the authority to impose more rigorous requirements. The Department’s guidance suggests that after approval by the accrediting agency, an institution may offer distance education programs without the need for further approval, unless delivery of a program exceeds 50% by distance education or the institution delivers more than 50% of its programs through the distance education modality. We have learned that institutional accreditors may wish to impose further approval earlier than the Department’s guidance indicates.

Additionally, the Department’s new guidance addressed that in response to the national pandemic that the Secretary exercised authority under the HEROES Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1098bb that the flexibilities with respect to institutional eligibility for distance education for purposes of Title IV that will continue until the national emergency is rescinded. However, these Department flexibilities as originally offered acknowledged that any flexibilities were subject to the requirements of the accreditors. We have learned that several accreditors are no longer extending these flexibilities.

What’s Next?

Please tell us if instances where you have run into this issue. And submit questions that you may have about the impact of this change.

We will compile questions to ask the Department. We will report the results to you.


Enabling Difference – Stories of Equity in Higher Education

The WCET team has committed to working toward a more equitable world through our work on digital learning in higher education. This fall we will dedicate the month of August to discussion of equity and inclusion in higher education, planned and coordinated by a work group of the WCET Steering Committee. Today, we’re joined by Chantae Recasner, to introduce the focus and dedication our team and our leadership has and to ask for help in exploring how you, our members, are Enabling Difference. Thank you to Chantae and the members of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion working group for your guidance as we all move toward a better education system and a better world.

Read on to learn more about how you can join us on this journey.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

In the last year, we witnessed a global explosion of interest in the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the United States, many attribute this resurgence of interest to the murder of George Floyd—the social media traction it gained, the public outcries and protests, and the synergistic rage against injustice it inspired in people of all ages, all races, and all nationalities. The struggle for equity in higher education, however, is as old as the creation of the university itself, and the vicious intersection of racism, sexism, and classism have long since haunted educational outcomes. For decades, theorists have argued the inherent fallacy of formal American education—an institution built upon inequity—as the great equalizer. Yet, we persist. In the most steadfast and unyielding way, educators lean into this social institution’s regenerative power and leverage reform and innovation as tools that can simultaneously cut the destructive limbs (irrespective of how deeply rooted they are) and rebuild better ones. Why? Simply because we can.

A Formula for Equity

photo of several hardcover books

There is no one formula for how best to do education: change out one of the significant variables (who’s teaching, who’s learning, who’s leading) and the outcomes could change. Thus, experimentation is par for the course.

Yet, when it comes to equity, in the absence of a formula there is fear. Scholars have responded to the fears:

None of these references are intended as definitive or comprehensive, just illustrative of how the field has responded to fears. Equity work, whether pedagogical or personal, is indeed scary. The work often feels like a challenge to reboot an entire nervous system as opposed to cutting off just one bad limb. But, there is no one formula for how best to do equity.

Enabling Difference through Equity Innovation – Help Us Learn More

In many ways, equity work is akin to innovation as it starts with empathy and people, and it necessitates experimentation. WCET is particularly interested in showcasing and/or exploring what’s being done in the digital landscape to advance equity. In fact, WCET recently partnered with DETA to sponsor the creation of “Research Review: Educational Technologies and Their on Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups of Interest” and also works in partnership with Every Learner Everywhere to address equity and digital learning. Over the summer and into the fall, we are looking for ways to advance stories that “Enable Difference.” What does enabling difference look like? We believe difference is being enabled in so many outstanding ways at institutions across the country. From learner profile development to training in equity-based pedagogies to diversifying leadership and faculty, there are so many available narratives about how colleges and universities are centering and valuing difference as a core component for strategic success.

So, what are you doing differently? How are you talking differently? How are you planning differently? What’s different about how you are facilitating teaching and learning? Here are some other questions for consideration:

  • How are you/your colleagues navigating impact versus intention in your work? Have you implemented strategies or integrated technology that caused unintended harm? Are you creating space(s) for dialogue about intention and impact?
  • How is your institution differentiating the college experience for students? Are you challenging “one size fits all” notions about enrollment, advising, instruction, tutoring, etc.? Are there technologies that you are using that help with this differentiation?
  • Has your institution identified particular friction points, i.e., particular courses/subjects/administrative processes, that are creating challenges to building equity? Are any of those friction points either caused or alleviated by technology?
  • How is the concept of “student ready” versus “college ready” driving your institutional practice? What does it look like to take the onus of success off of the student and put it on the college/university? Are there ways that technology can help or hinder student success and institutional ownership?

In All of Your Considerations, Don’t Lose Sight of The Goal: EQUITY.

textbox reads "enabling difference"

Equity in education exists when explicit and implicit barriers are removed so that all students and employees have optimal access to success. Expressed differently, equity is created when we design systems that yield it. If systems inherently produce what they are designed to produce, we must embrace change to see the equitable outcomes we desire. Maybe you have a story about how your organization is changing to advance equity. Who’s involved? What’s being done? How are you measuring what has been done? What metrics are driving your conversations/actions? What are you learning? Or maybe you would like to share your campus’ strategic plan and the ways that it centers equity and student success. Those documents and answers to the above questions will help us frame our collective conversations around equity and student success.

WCET understands that change is a process and that equity is ongoing. You might have a successfully completed project that you want to share, but it is also okay to provide the story of how you attempted something and found it challenging. In other words, evidence of success is very valuable but so is any and all evidence of learning. If you’re about to launch an initiative on your campus or in your system, what are the key considerations you are making before the launch? If you attempted a read-in for all staff in your area and it failed, what did you and your team learn from that failure?

In the coming months we will be exploring equity and digital learning in greater detail including a series of blog posts and other learning opportunities throughout the month of August. The journey to equity is about becoming, and we are on that journey with you. We welcome any and all stories of how you are Enabling Difference to become more equitable.

Please share your stories by emailing me at Thank you!


Comment Period Open for “21st Century Guidelines for Distance Education”

NC-SARA has opened a two month opportunity for SARA state members, SARA participating institutions, and members of the public to submit comments regarding the 21st Century Guidelines from June 2, 2021 through August 2, 2021.

Institutions that obtain state institutional approval through reciprocity for their out-of-state distance education related activities by participating in SARA (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements), are familiar with the annual SARA Application and Approval Form for Institutional Participation. This application process currently directs that the institution CEO or CAO affirm that the institution will abide by the Council for Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) Guidelines. This institutional requirement to abide by the guidelines was for the purpose of states, who oversee the institutions, to ensure quality for distance education of their participating institutions. Corresponding to the institution requirement, States, through the biennial SARA Application and Approval form for State Membership, affirm that they agree to require the SARA institutions operate under the C-RAC guidelines. The SARA Policy Manual addresses this requirement for institutions in Section 4.7 and states in Section 2.5(p).

Release of Proposed Guidelines

Earlier this spring, the Proposed 21st Century Distance Education Guidelines were posted on the Council for Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) website. These proposed guidelines are the final product of NC-SARA’s commissioning of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) to update the C-RAC Guidelines. Colleagues from institutions and accrediting agencies participated as interviewees and reviewers to develop the proposed guidelines. The original C-RAC guidelines are based on Best Practices developed by C-RAC and WCET. The guidelines were last updated in 2011. Along with the release of the proposed guidelines, NC-SARA released on their website, 21st Century Distance Education Guidelines Information from NC-SARA, to explain the purpose of the guidelines. Additionally, the document explained that in the upcoming May 2021 NC-SARA Board Meeting, the board will need to vote to replace the old guidelines with the revised guidelines. Prior to the May 2021 NC-SARA Board Meeting, an announcement was released on the NC-SARA website that NC-SARA staff recommended that the NC-SARA board table the vote on the new guidelines. The vote delay was to provide an opportunity for states and institutions to comment. The announcement indicated further direction would be available after the May 5, 2021, board meeting.

Within the last week, NC-SARA announced the opportunity for the public to participate in an informational webinar on June 29, 2021. Presenters are expected to discuss how the C-RAC guidelines have offered student consumer protections, how the new updated guidelines were developed, next steps, and how accreditors may be adopting or using the guidelines. Following that announcement, NC-SARA shared another website announcement that included the process for the public comment period, which was added to the announcement regarding a revision to the SARA policy review and revision cycle.

Comment Period Instructions

Please review the following instructions which vary depending on the person or entity you will represent when submitting comments. The deadline for submission of comments is Monday, August 2, 2021.

  • The NC-SARA website announcement suggests that you should read the latest Information and FAQs and register for the June 29, 2021 informational webinar if you are considering submitting a comment.
  • SARA state members should look for guidance from their regional compacts.
  • SARA participating institutions should look for an email to a survey link from NC-SARA to submit institutional comments.
  • Public comments may submit comments by emailing to Instructions ask that you please include a detailed rationale for your suggestions or comments.

Your Comments Matter

several sticky notes laid out on a table, someone preparing to write on a note.

Regular readers will recall that WCET and the WCET|State Authorization Network (SAN) commonly report on public comment opportunities offered by the U.S. Department of Education. This is the opportunity for key stakeholders to seek clarification about ambiguous language, inquire about implementation issues, and address compliance expectations.

New laws, regulations, and requirements are created to help protect students as consumers of higher education. By sharing your comments and questions, your thoughts may shed light on potentially better methods to protect students or highlight barriers your institution could face in limiting your ability to comply and protect students. A great example of comments making a difference was the previous Federal regulation for state authorization of distance education and professional licensure notifications that erroneously used the word “residence” instead of “location.” Protection of students would have remained in disarray if the Department had not addressed comments by including these issues for key stakeholders to address in negotiated rulemaking that led to replacement language.

It is important that commenters follow the instructions provided by the NC-SARA announcement. The instructions indicate that there will be a comment process for staff representing a state and a comment process for staff representing an institution. You must have the appropriate authority to submit a comment on behalf of your state or your institution.

There is a third option to submit a comment as a member of the public. This may mean that you are not representing your institution or state, but you have a question about how you will manage compliance for certain aspects of the guidelines. Please follow the instructions offered in that situation. As with public comments to the Department, we urge you to be respectful and positive with your suggestions or questions. Share any possible impact for your state or your institution and your students. Helpful alternatives may show your interest in fixing any problems rather than just indicating a complaint.

Regardless of the manner for which you submit a comment, it is important to be well informed with the language of the Proposed 21st Century Distance Education Guidelines and to review that latest Information and FAQs and register for the June 29, 2021 informational webinar as the NC-SARA announcement suggests.

Please remember that the comment period deadline is August 2, 2021.

WCET and WCET|SAN Gathering Comments

Additionally, we would like to support you, our members, by providing the opportunity for you to additionally share your questions and comments with us. Just as we do with other announcements for public comment, we would like to prepare our comment to represent the questions and concerns of our members. The point of our comment is to share any consistent themes or concerns that are best addressed prior to the final implementation.

Your input is important for the long-range implementation and consumer protection for students. In addition to your comment submissions, you may send your questions and comments directly to Russ Poulin or Cheryl Dowd.

Please get your comments to us by July 23, 2021.

Watch for more from WCET and the WCET|State Authorization Network (SAN)!


A Timely Case Study on Federal Rulemaking

Regular readers of WCET Frontiers will recall that we avidly follow the U.S. Department of Education’s quest to develop regulations through the negotiated rulemaking process. Rulemaking is a complicated and intriguing process. Our colleagues, Jeannie Yockey-Fine with NC-SARA and Shari Miller with Institutional Compliance Matters are here today to assist me with sharing about an interesting twist through a court challenge to a particular regulation that came from a recent rulemaking (which came to consensus in Spring 2019).

It is timely for us to address this case study to review how the rulemaking process works and consider possible outcomes. Last week we received the first notification of intention to initiate Federal rulemaking. We anticipate that the Department will hold several rulemaking sessions to develop new regulations as well as review and revise current regulations through Federal rulemaking. There could also be court challenges to current regulations.

The Rulemaking Process

two hands with thumbs up
Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

In order to implement components of the Higher Education Act, which is federal law, the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) follows a negotiated rulemaking process to write federal regulations. This negotiated rulemaking process is directed by federal statute through the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The process includes many steps including the convening of a negotiated rulemaking committee of key stake holders who review the subject matter and write the regulations with some assistance by the Department.

The rulemaking committee must come to consensus (100% agreement) for the language to be offered as proposed regulations, subject to public comment. After public comment, the Department reviews all comments, may or may not provide clarifying edits due to the public comments, and then releases responses to the comments along with the final regulations. If the committee does not reach consensus the Department may write the regulations themselves, theoretically based upon the guidance of the committee discussions. These regulations, as written by the Department, also follow the process of releasing the proposed regulation subject to public comment and then final regulations are released after review of the public comments.

2019 Federal Rulemaking

WCET followed the 2019 Accreditation and Innovations Negotiated Rulemaking process from the very first announcement of the proposed rulemaking plan through the Department’s proposed language suggestions to start the rulemaking process. WCET then reported about the rulemaking committee coming to consensus and the release over the following year of the first package though third package of the final regulations developed from consensus.

There are many layers to the rulemaking process. It is important to highlight a few layers pertaining to this particular 2019 rulemaking. If you recall, this rulemaking consisted of several unprecedented components.

  • First, the rulemaking was developed to address an extraordinary number of issues related to accreditation, distance education, and innovation.
  • Second, the number of issues was so large, the Department developed the unusual idea of creating three sub-committees. Each sub-committee addressed a specific set of issues to lend their expertise and non-binding guidance to the main rulemaking committee.
  • Third, although it is typical that the rulemaking committee develops their structure for addressing the issues at their first meeting, the Department supplied their own suggested regulatory language in the form of summaries for each regulatory area prior to the first rulemaking session. The language had no binding effect but was to serve as a starting point for discussions and appeared to address the interests of the Department.
  • Fourth, voting on the regulations by the main committee was accomplished by voting on each of the three separate sets of issues rather than as one large package of regulations. Each separate set reached consensus. This then created the overall consensus.
  • Fifth, the Department released the overall set of consensus regulations in three separate packages. Each package was released as proposed regulations subject to public comment and then released in final form several months following the public comment period of the release of each of the three separate packages of regulations.

34 C.F.R. § 668.5 – Written arrangements to provide educational programs. Timeline of Revision to Court Action.

The outcome of the process detailed above that created this particular final regulation impacts eleven-year-old language regarding outsourcing of instruction to an institution which shares common ownership. In 2010, under the Obama administration, federal regulations 34 C.F.R. § 668.5 (a)(2)(ii) (effective until July 1, 2021) allowed institutions to outsource up to 50% of instruction to a school under common ownership if the written arrangement regarding the outsourcing was approved by the institution’s accreditor.

outline of state of california in colorful dots

The suggested revised regulatory language offered by the Department in Summary 668 at the start of the 2019 Negotiated Rulemaking included the removal of the 50% cap outsourcing instruction. In the recording of the subcommittee discussions, several members of this non-binding group appeared to express that the 50% cap should remain. The main negotiated rulemaking committee ultimately decided to concur with the revised regulatory language that was suggested by the Department, and voted unanimously to remove the 50% cap. This regulation was part of the third package of regulations that was released in proposed form on April 20, 2020 and subject to public comment. On September 2, 2020, the final regulations were released. Federal regulation 34 C.F.R. § 668.5 (a)(2) (effective July 1, 2021) was amended to lift the 50% cap so that institutions may now outsource up to 100% of instruction to another institution if they both have common ownership. Because public and non-profit institutions do not technically have “owners,” this provision applies only to for-profit institutions.

The State of California viewed the increase to 100% as weakening student consumer protections, and on January 15th, 2021, the State filed a Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief against the Department based upon the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). On January 19, 2021, the National Student Legal Defense Network joined the action as an additional participant (intervenor) with the State of California. The Department filed a Motion to Dismiss on April 6, 2021 and the hearing is scheduled for July 15, 2021.

Plaintiff’s Argument

The State of California’s overriding argument is that the actions of the Department in the 2020 Distance Education and Innovation regulation “illegally rolled back federal oversight of for-profit schools to the detriment of students and taxpayers.” The State argues that this action of removal, which will now allow a for-profit school to outsource 100% of a student’s education, was in violation of the APA because the Department provided no reasoned explanation for the arbitrary increase.

The Complaint also provided references to the Department’s motives for the change. The Departments stated references included that the 50% cap was “needlessly restrictive” because “each institution must meet the criteria to be an eligible institution,” and that “written arrangements beyond 50% theoretically could be used responsibly.” These references also included that The Department “deferred to accrediting agencies in this area,” which must approve the written arrangements. Potential safeguards from unchecked institutional conduct can be found in the comments to the final regulation, where the Department recognized that many accreditors require at least 25% of the program to be delivered by the institution conferring the credential and defers to accrediting agencies, as the decision maker on program approval. The Department further indicated that it does not believe that the change, which applies to a very small number of students enrolled at institutions with co-ownership, exposes those students to meaningful additional risk because there are other federal protections in place such as misrepresentation and fraud statutes that can be enforced through existing means. Also, the Department stated that there is value in maintaining flexibility to achieve synergies between two or more eligible institutions owned or controlled by the same individual, partnership, or corporation and that the written arrangements (which were strengthened in the accreditation final rule) are viewed as a tool that can provide more opportunity for students, as not every institution is able to provide every conceivable course or instructional resource.

The concerns from the National Student Legal Defense Network included the possible difference in quality of the student experience between institutions sharing ownership, which could lead to students being misled about the nature of their education (e.g., students may be forced to take more online courses through an affiliated institution when they expected to take on-ground classes), as well as arguing the removal of the cap was arbitrary and no reasonable alternatives were considered.

Current Status of the Court Action

black gavel on table in courtroom
Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

The Department submitted its response in the form of a Motion to Dismiss on April 6, 2021. It argues that the State of California lacks standing because it fails to identify a viable injury fairly traceable to the State and it cannot sue the federal government on behalf of its residents under a theory of Parens Patriae or other third party standing. Additionally, the State’s Cal Grant program eligibility that has been tied to Title IV was a decision made by the State, not the Department and that choice does not support standing in this matter. A hearing on the Motion to Dismiss is scheduled for July 15, 2021 in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Should the State of California challenge ultimately be argued on the merits and if decided in favor of the plaintiff, the court decision could cause the new regulation to be vacated and the 50% cap restored. We have seen several examples of court challenges for failure to follow the APA when developing a new regulation. Some may recall that the original state authorization of distance education Federal regulation 34 CFR 600.9(c), was vacated by the U.S. District Court in 2011 for failure to follow procedure as directed by the APA when the final regulation for state authorization included sub-regulatory language regarding state authorization of distance education without opportunity for public comment. A similar issue occurred in 2019 when the U.S. District Court vacated the delay of the next version of the state authorization federal regulation for failure to follow procedure as directed by the APA to create a delay rule.

Lessons Learned

Over the last few months, the new administration has identified several higher education priorities:

  • Title IX guidance, policies, and regulations,
  • Borrower Defense/Gainful Employment,
  • 90/10 Rule, and
  • FAFSA Simplification.

Addressing these priorities are expected to include the negotiated rulemaking process. Given these priorities, some experts have indicated that revisions to accreditation regulations are not likely to be part of rulemakingHowever, as we see, regulations can be subject to court challenges.

Ultimately, the next few years will be very interesting as we see the visions of the Biden Administration, the Department of Education, and other constituents unfold. What we know is that there are several avenues for which the visions can be achieved. WCET will be following and sharing these avenues as they occur.


Intention to Initiate Federal Rulemaking Announced

This week we saw the start of what we have been expecting from the new administration – new rulemaking. Experts have shared for months that the Biden Administration and the Department of Education have prioritized several issues to address including:

  • Title IX,
  • Borrower Defense to Repayment,
  • Gainful Employment,
  • 90/10 Rule, and
  • FAFSA Simplification.

These priorities express this administration’s desire to protect students. In a recent press release, The U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona underscored this intent by saying,

“The Department of Education’s primary responsibility is to serve students and borrowers. That means taking a fresh look at a range of regulations to make sure they are not creating unnecessary barriers, but instead can ensure that institutions and programs serve our students well.”

It was expected that these issues would be addressed through rulemaking which has multiple procedural steps before a regulation becomes effective.

Department of Education Press Release

The rulemaking process begins with public input. The May 24, 2021 press release by the Department of Education announced the intention to hold virtual public hearings on June 21, 23, and 24 in order to receive stakeholder input on potential issues for the an upcoming rulemaking.

The press release further described the issues the Department has proposed to be addressed. These issues include:

  • borrower defense,
  • gainful employment,
  • rules for loan repayment, and
  • improving rules governing targeted student loan cancellation authorities for borrowers engaged in public service, with disabilities, or whose institutions close, among other topics.

After completion of the public hearings the Department will seek nominations for non-federal negotiators to serve on the negotiated rulemaking committee starting in late Summer 2021.

Proposed Regulatory Issues to be Addressed

  1. Change of ownership and change in control of institutions of higher education under 34 CFR 600.31;
  2. Certification procedures for participation in title IV, HEA programs under 34 CFR 668.13;
  3. Standards of administrative capability under 34 CFR 668.16;
  4. Ability to benefit under 34 CFR 668.156;
  5. Borrower defense to repayment under 34 CFR 682.410, 682.411, 685.206, and 685.222;
  6. Discharges for borrowers with a total and permanent disability under 34 CFR 674.61, 682.402, and 685.213;
  7. Closed school discharges under 34 CFR 685.214 and 682.402;
  8. Discharges for false certification of student eligibility under 34 CFR 685.215(a)(1) and 682.402;
  9. Loan repayment plans under 34 CFR 682.209, 682.215, 685.208, and 685.209;
  10. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program under 34 CFR 685.219;
  11. Mandatory pre-dispute arbitration and prohibition of class action lawsuits provisions in institutions’ enrollment agreements (formerly under 34 CFR 685.300) and associated counseling about such arrangements under 34 CFR 685.304;
  12. Financial responsibility for participating institutions of higher education under 34 CFR subpart L, such as events that indicate heightened financial risk;
  13. Gainful employment (formerly located in 34 CFR subpart Q); and
  14. Pell Grant eligibility for prison education programs under 34 CFR part 690.

Announcing Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, Public Hearings, and Public Comment

The May 26, 2021 Federal Register Announcement offers the Department’s interest in advancing equitable outcomes and invites comments from those significantly affected by the suggested topics that will be addressed in this rulemaking. The Department announced that interested parties may provide comments on the proposed regulatory issues as well as suggesting additional issues that should be considered by the negotiated rulemaking. Comments may be provided during public hearings or by submission of written comments.

The Department has expressed that they are particularly interested in comments on regulations that would address gaps in postsecondary outcomes including retention, completion, student loan repayment, and loan default. The announcement also explained that the Department expects the committees to be created after the public hearings with the negotiation sessions to begin no earlier than August 2021. The committees will meet virtually for up to three sessions of approximately five days each at roughly four-week intervals.

The Department has expressed that they are particularly interested in comments on regulations that would address gaps in postsecondary outcomes including retention, completion, student loan repayment, and loan default.

How to Register to Present Comments at the Public Hearings

Public Hearings will be held virtually on June 21, 23, and 14, 2021. Interested individuals must register to present their comments by sending an email to no later than 12:00 p.m. Eastern time on the business day prior to the public hearing at which they want to speak. The time limit for comments is five minutes. Here is additional information the public hearings.

How to Observe the Public Hearings

For those interested in observing the public hearings, the Department will post registration links for the public hearings on the Department’s website. There will be a unique link each day for attendees who wish to observe. Non-speaking attendees will join the public hearings through Microsoft Teams Live. The Department will also post transcripts of the hearings on that site.

Written Comments

The Department directs that written comments will be accepted through July 1, 2021.

As we have shared in previous public comment periods, please obtain appropriate approval at your institution or organization if you are commenting on their behalf. You may comment as an individual, but in that case, be sure not to use your institution or organization’s letter head.

Submissions may be offered in several ways but will not be accepted by fax. The Department offers the following options to submit a written comment:

  • Federal eRulemaking Portal: Go to to submit comments electronically. Information on using, including instructions for accessing agency documents, submitting comments, and viewing the docket, is available on the site under “FAQ.”
  • Postal Mail, Commercial Delivery, or Hand Delivery: Addressed to Vanessa Gomez, U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Ave. SW, Room 2C179, Washington, DC 20202.
  • Link highlighted green box at the top of the Federal Register Announcement: Submit a Formal Comment.

Next steps

You may wish to consider providing input at this time though the public hearing or written comments. The Department has expressed particular interest in comments on regulations that would address gaps in outcomes, retention, completion, student loan repayment, and loan default. Specifically, the Department wishes to consider impact due to demographic characteristics such income, race/ethnicity, gender.

WCET would like to reflect our members questions and concerns regarding this proposed rulemaking process. Please share your thoughts and questions regarding the proposed regulatory issues and suggested additional concerns that should be considered by the negotiated rulemaking with the team at WCET. Your thoughts and questions may be sent directly to Russ Poulin ( or Cheryl Dowd ( ).

Please look to WCET in the months ahead to share updates on this rulemaking process.

Policy Practice

New Report: Research Review of EdTech and Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups

WCET and the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA) announce today’s release of a new joint report: “Research Review: Educational Technologies and Their Impact on Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups of Interest.”

publication release: Research Review of EdTech and Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups. with deta and wcet logos.


The events of the past year highlighted the inequities faced by those who have traditionally not been served well be institutions or by society as a whole. In discussions among WCET members and staff, we could list several suggestions for remedies. But which of them to recommend? We believe actions should be evidence-based.

As a result, we contacted Tanya Joosten of DETA. She and her group are premier researchers in the use of educational technologies in higher education. WCET contracted with DETA to conduct a review of recent research on educational technologies and student outcomes for students of racial and ethnic groups.

Purpose, Objective, and Target Population

The purpose of the review is to identify institutional, instructional, and learning practices mediated by educational technology that positively influence the success of certain racial and ethnic groups of American students, including students who identify as Black, African American, Hispanic, Latinx, Latino or Latina, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Indigenous American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander. The rationale for the review is to better understand what recent and relevant research-based practices in the educational technology field can be replicated and scaled across postsecondary education in the United States (U.S.) to create equitable and inclusive learning experiences. The objective of this research is the identification of practices and/or interventions that are positively influencing student outcomes (e.g., access, learning, grades, course completion, satisfaction, persistence, and others) for the population of interest to encourage implementation across the WCET community.

purpose of Research review report, pg. 2


The research was guided by these four questions on how to better serve and to improve the learning effectiveness for students from the target populations:

  1. What can administrators do better?
    1.  What instructional-level practices, such as student and instructional supports, can be implemented that are proven to improve student access and success?
    1. How can offering student services through supporting improvements in instruction and/or through education technology help improve equity in education?
  2. What can instructors and instructional support staff do better?
    1. What course-level and instructional practices and interventions create inclusive opportunities for learning and are proven to better serve students?
  3. What can student support staff do better?
  4. What can all stakeholders do better?


There is more to the methodology in the report, but it is important to note that only peer-reviewed studies were selected that were published over a recent nearly three-year period. Also, “peer-reviewed studies were selected for inclusion based on the presence of a series of a key terms search related to race and ethnicity and a term related to education technology, such as digital learning or online learning.

Unfortunately, there were fewer studies that we had hoped. Even so, the report has recommendations for different higher education populations. Below are the categories with a sample recommendation for each…

Administrators and Staff

“…institutions should avoid choosing the traditional solution of investing in more student support services, such as tutoring, without robust investigation into their current institutional structures that may be impeding the success rates of all students. Sometimes the solution is not *more* student support services, but, rather, a re-envisioning of the current institutional structure and cultural norms characterizing that structure in its entirety (see Benitez, 2010).

Faculty and Instructors

“faculty should consider a more culturally inclusive curriculum when possible.”


showing the steps students should consider
Behaviors that positively influence student success in online learning. Graphic from report, pg 19.

“The existence of the digital divide has become even more evident in the response to COVID-19. It is particularly evident when students are removed from institutional student housing.
Students should have access to technology, broadband, and an effective learning environment.”



Upcoming WCET Webcast Discussing Research Review

speaker photos for the may 20 webcast

Join us on May 20th for member-only webcast featuring Dr. Tanya Joosten and Dr. Cherise McBride (Lecturer, Literacy and Technology, University of California, Berkeley) for a discussion of the research review.


How Social Scientists Can Contribute to Online Teaching and Learning: Research, Teaching, and Mentorship

Today’s guest authors, Mary Ellen Dello Stritto and Rebecca Thomas from the Ecampus Research Unit with Oregon State University’s Ecampus are here to discuss how social scientists can contribute to online teaching and learning research. Thank you to both of them for today’s post.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

While remote forms of education have been increasingly discussed during COVID-19, online higher education has been growing for over 15 years (e.g., Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). This growth is exciting because online education has the potential to increase educational access for diverse groups of adult learners (see table below). Many students may find that completing courses, certificate programs, and degree programs online can make educational attainment more feasible. However, the field of online educational research is still young, and there is a lot of opportunity to contribute to both research and practice in the field.

Students Who May Benefit from Online EducationOnline education has the potential to provide educational access to individuals who may find it difficult to attend face-to-face courses.

Students who have many responsibilities. Asynchronous online courses allow students to complete course objectives during the hours that they are available, which can make higher education more feasible for students with life commitments such as full-time jobs or childcare responsibilities. Adults who desire career changes, or want to further their education in hopes of increased responsibility or promotion may find it easier to fit online courses into their schedules. Additionally, students who may be taking courses at an institution’s campus may find that combining online and blended courses with campus courses may fit better into their work and family life.
Students who live in remote areas. Since online courses are offered virtually, they can be accessed wherever there is adequate internet access. This aspect of online education can benefit students who live in remote areas, or students who are unable to move or commute for specific courses or programs.
Students who travel or who live in multiple locations. For example, military service personnel whose job responsibilities require moving or living in multiple locations may find online courses to be compatible with their other responsibilities.
Students with disabilities or health concerns that make visiting campus difficult. Some students may find it difficult to drive to campus, travel around campus, or attend class in a face-to-face setting due to disabilities or physical or mental health symptoms. Online education may allow these students to take courses in environments where they function more optimally.

We, the authors of this piece, are psychologists by training who currently work in the Ecampus Research Unit (ECRU), a research team housed within Oregon State’s University Ecampus, the division for online degrees and programs. Our educational and research experiences have provided us with a unique perspective on the online higher education field, as well as on how social scientists can contribute.

Social scientists (including but not limited to sociologists, historians, and political scientists) are excellent candidates for contributing to future work in online teaching and learning. For example, social scientists are often trained in how to conduct research involving human participants, and the diverse methodologies offered in the social sciences could allow the field to investigate online education through multiple lenses. Many social scientists may be surprised to learn how their skills could contribute to multi-disciplinary teams, as researchers in other fields (e.g. researchers in STEM fields) may desire to conduct educational research, but lack the training in human participant methodologies.

If you are a social scientist who wants to contribute to research, teaching, or mentorship in online education, the following sections describe important considerations.

How Social Scientists Can Contribute to Research in Online Higher Education

Do You Already Study Teaching and Learning?

photo of person holding mobile phone
Photo by fauxels on

In addition to social scientists’ expertise in research design with human participants and data analysis, many social scientists are already studying content areas that relate to teaching and learning. For example, social scientists often aim to understand trends and relationships in between humans and society. These areas could potentially be applied to educational environments, as education is situated within a broader culture and society, and teaching depends on interpersonal relationships and communication. Many social scientists who do not consider themselves to be “educational researchers” may find that educational research fits their skill-set and interests. For example, phenomena studied in social psychology such as implicit bias, collaborative group work, and social norms could be applied to understanding online education.  

More Variety and Opportunity

Social scientists filling multiple roles in higher education may find it rewarding to conduct research related to online teaching and learning. Faculty with heavy teaching loads, many of whom may already be teaching online or blended courses, may choose to conduct research within their current courses. Faculty in research-heavy positions may also find that Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research complements their current research agendas. Since so many areas of social science could relate to online teaching and learning, there is opportunity for many in the field to contribute.

Research Starting Points and Ideas

The following are areas where additional scholarship would be useful in online higher education. These areas are by no means exhaustive, and since they have been written from our perspective as psychologists, they may not completely align with perspectives offered by all social sciences. However, we hope that these areas can provide a starting point for social scientists to consider online educational research in the context of their expertise and experiences.

While some of these research areas may require original research, other research areas may be able to be addressed by current work that has not yet been applied to online teaching and learning. Social scientists with specific areas of expertise could consider ways that their content areas could improve online education and educational environments. While these research areas run parallel with endeavors of the SoTL more broadly, there has been less research in the context of online teaching and learning, as well as in regard to other modalities of education, such as in blended learning.

Research Area 1: Performance in Online Education

Example Research Questions How do students perform in a specific online course or in a specific online program? Why are students performing this way? How well do faculty teach specific online courses, or within specific programs? What are best practices for teaching online and evaluating teaching effectiveness?Are there differences in student performance for the same course or program offered online compared to other modalities? What reasons are there for these differences?What efforts can be made to improve student and faculty performance in an online course or program?
Important Considerations What indicators of student performance to measure (i.e. grades, retention, post-graduation employment data), as well as indicators of faculty performance (e.g. peer evaluations, student evaluations)Whether there is interest in performance for a specific online course, or for a larger online program If this research is about online education in a specific field, it could be useful to consider sub-fields (i.e. comparing performance in a specific content course to a statistics for social sciences course)

Research Area 2: Educational Experience in Online Education

Example Research Questions What factors (e.g. social support, self-compassion) impact student and faculty experiences in online courses and programs? What barriers do certain students and faculty encounter in online courses and programs (e.g. bias, isolation)?How can interventions improve the educational experiences of online students, faculty, and other stakeholders?
Important Considerations Some students and faculty may experience different barriers than others when completing their education. For example, some research has focused on students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds. Barriers can be course or program specific, as well as specific to student or faculty demographic variables.Barriers in online learning may or may not be similar to general barriers in higher education. It is important to consider the online education context and how that may interact with other factors.

Research Area 3: Pedagogy in Online Education

Example Research Questions Which pedagogies are effective in online learning?What are the study methods used by online students? If we understand this information, then pedagogy can be designed specifically for the online learning environment.Are there pedagogies that are particularly useful for teaching specific concepts online?
Important Considerations Most Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research has been conducted in face-to-face environments. More research is needed related to online learning.It is possible that some pedagogy established in face-to-face environments could be effective in online environments. However, it is also possible to design pedagogy that utilizes the online medium and aligns with the way that online learners tend to study.Research done in multiple fields could be applied to pedagogy in online education.

Considerations for Social Scientists: Teaching & Mentoring Online Students

In addition to contributing to the online teaching and learning field through research, social scientists can also contribute to the field as they teach and mentor online students. While more research in this area would be useful, equivalency theory suggests that online students will achieve equivalent learning outcomes to face face-to-face learners if they receive equivalent learning experiences (Simonson, 1999). We recommend that social scientists consider how they can ensure that they are providing equivalent learning experiences to their online students, both in the classroom, as well as outside of the classroom.

people on a video call
Photo by Anna Shvets on
  1. Faculty can provide equivalent learning experiences in the online classroom. While online pedagogy may look different from face-to-face pedagogy, it is possible for online students to receive equivalent learning opportunities in online classrooms. Fortunately, if you are new to teaching online, many professionals have been working in this area for years, and there are many resources that you can refer to so as to avoid reinventing the wheel. We recommend looking into online teaching resources provided by your institutions, as well as visiting resources provided by Quality Matters, Online Learning Consortium (OLC), UPCEA, and EDUCAUSE. In an Ecampus Research Unit study, we interviewed 33 instructors who had been teaching online for 10 years or more. These instructors recommended taking advantage of trainings and professional development opportunities. For example, some found that they could teach more content online than they originally thought, and many enjoyed the challenge of teaching in a new environment (more results from this study can be found here). Visit these blog posts for more information on skills that you can develop as an online instructor, as well as advice for new online instructors.
  2. Social Scientists can provide equivalent learning experiences outside of the classroom. In addition to providing quality education within online courses, departments can consider ways that they can make other learning experiences available to online students. For example, many undergraduates receive opportunities such as research and teaching assistantships, tutoring positions, and involvement in student organizations. These experiences can be invaluable in preparing students for graduate work, as well as for work in other areas such as industry. With a creative approach to logistics, online students can partake in these experiences outside of the classroom. For example, many social science related student positions could be completed remotely, and many events, such as seminars and guest speaker sessions, could be recorded or broadcasted online. If you are a social scientist in higher education, we would encourage you to consider a) What experiences do students in your field need to be successful?, and b) How can these experiences be offered to online students?

An Exciting Future for Online Learning and Research

There is a lot of quality work that has been done by social scientists that could enhance online teaching and learning research, and additional efforts could be made by faculty when teaching and mentoring online students. We believe that social scientists have the potential to contribute to the online education field in their specific roles, at their institutions.


author headshot

Mary Ellen Dello Stritto
Director, Ecampus Research Unit
Oregon State University, Ecampus

Rebecca Arlene Thomas
Postdoctoral Scholar Ecampus Research Unit
Oregon State University, Ecampus



Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade increase: Tracking distance education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group.

Simonson, M. (1999). Equivalency theory and distance education. TechTrends, 43(5), 5-8.


“What is College Worth?” – Postsecondary Value Commission Addresses that Question

What is the value of a college education? The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Value Commission released today the first in a series of reports, data tools, and action agendas to address this elusive question.

photo of three women sitting in a classroom. Text reads "Postsecondary value commission. What is college worth?"

Students, parents, employers, and policymakers increasingly question the collegiate investment if the economic return is not apparent, opportunity costs are considerable, and students are left with stifling loan debt. These questions have been amplified due to the pandemic and the feeling among some students that they are not getting what they purchased.

While not all benefits to the college experience are financial, the economics loom large and equity considerations come into play as voiced by the Commission:

The Issue

Concerns about college affordability and debt are giving rise to the question “What is college worth?” The returns on education after high school vary greatly by who a student is and where they come from – and they shouldn’t. Today in America, Latinx adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn 25% less than their White peers, while Black adults earn 21% less. This contributes to the reality that a household headed by a White college graduate has eight times the wealth of a household headed by a Black college graduate.

This can and must change. A national commission – the Postsecondary Value Commission – is shining a light on this issue and is calling for action to improve the value of education after high school and make that value more equitable.

The Commission’s work is extremely data driven and views the concept of “value” through different lenses. For students, they consider the student investment, impact on student ability to build wealth, learning (including critical thinking and collaborative problem solving), skills gaps, and impact on wellbeing. For society, they consider public benefits and the role in promoting justice.


Using “the best available data and new analyses for measuring and promoting value” they make the following key observation:

Today, the returns on an education after high school vary according to a student’s race, ethnicity, income, or gender, and there are actions that can be taken – now – to change that.
College is worth it, but how much it is worth varies by who a student is, which institution(s) they attend (and which programs they pursue), and whether they earn a credential.

In detailing their findings, the following one will cause heartburn at institutions cited as not meeting the basic economic thresholds for their students.

Colleges and universities vary widely in the economic value realized by their students – and many are showing minimal returns.

DATA POINT: While a majority of public and private not-for-profit colleges and universities post minimum economic returns for their students 10 years after first enrollment (i.e., earnings at or above those of high school graduates plus total net price), just under 650 institutions fail to meet this most basic threshold (including a majority of private for-profit institutions).

Commission analysis of federal College Scorecard data

Undoubtedly some colleges deserve to be called out and others are incapable of failing this test because they attract wealthy students who (mostly) will succeed in any case. In a “question and answer” follow-up in the materials provided to me, the question is asked about the Commission’s work being used to “punish colleges and universities that are trying to do a better job of serving students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and women but still have relatively low outcomes?” They respond that their intent is for the data to be used for improvement and not to shame institutions.

Other findings, include:

  • Economic returns also vary by a student’s race/ ethnicity and whether they complete a degree or certificate or not.
  • Economic returns also vary widely by race/ethnicity even among graduates of the same program, recognizing that earnings disparities stem from educational and non-educational sources.

Access institutions have been much more focused on economic opportunity and equitable outcomes, whereas the perceived value of a more prestigious institution can be harder to measure. This report demonstrates why institutional leaders should examine long-term economic mobility, the total cost of education, time to degree and long-lasting damage caused by student debt.

Jory Hadsell (Executive Director, California Virtual Campus and Chair, WCET Return on Investment Working Group)

Recommendations and Next Steps

The Commission recommendations double down on the need for data driven decisions and provide actions that they would like to see taken by the different constituencies:

Information can and should drive action to improve value – especially for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underrepresented Asian American/Pacific Islander students, students from low-income backgrounds, and women.

  • Colleges and universities can create stronger and smarter paths to credentials that reduce the time and money students need to invest, focus more of their resources on students with the greatest financial need, and create stronger pathways to economically stable and fulfilling careers.
  • State and federal policymakers can better target student aid dollars to the most financially vulnerable students, strengthening investment in colleges and universities that are serving (not just enrolling) a significant number of diverse students.
  • Students and families should be empowered to ask critical questions about the return on their educational investment – and get answers to those questions. These questions include things like time-to-credential, earnings for graduates at different points in time, debt-to-earnings ratio for graduates, and more.

This is just the beginning of work coming from the Postsecondary Value Commission. They will release a data tool containing performance data on value measures for thousands of colleges and universities. They also will form a coalition of institutions committed to advancing value through improved data collection.

What About Digital Education?

Any time one gets into the economics of higher education, I wonder about when the “digital education is cheaper” argument will come into play. WCET has addressed this in our work on the price and cost of distance education. As we outline in the Change Magazine article on this issue, there is widespread misperceptions on both the academic and policymaker sides on the cost vs. price equation. The common refrain from the public is that online education must cost less to create and offer.

From what I have read thus far, the Commission is curiously silent on the impact that digital technologies might have on postsecondary value. Let’s keep watching and get prepared. WCET’s Steering Committee has a working group that is preparing a series of posts and events addressing student return on investment that will be released this fall.

Why Should You Care About This Report?

The value of postsecondary education has driven decisions by hundreds of thousands of students and by multitudes of policymakers. This report turns the bright spotlight on the question. There will even more expectations for colleges and universities to respond.

Sasha Thackaberry (Vice President, Online & Continuing Education, Louisiana State University and WCET Executive Council Chair) put the report into context for WCET members:

“The report from the Postsecondary Value Commission underscores the importance of what we do in the field of online education. Critical to this is providing access to higher education in an efficient way that respects the abilities of students to transfer credit into their institution of choice. Relevant, rigorous degrees from highly-valued institutions are more important than ever before for economic mobility. LSU joins other WCET institutions in being completely aligned with the mission of improving opportunities for all students, regardless of where they live or what background they come from. Providing robust academic support and anywhere/anytime access to resources is key to supporting students.”

For WCET members…we need to ask ourselves how digital education is part of the solution and not part of the problem.