Further Clarification about Federal Complaint Process Requirement

We have received a lot of questions about the complaint process portion of the federal student complaint process regulation since Russ’s July 19 blog Federal Student Complaint Regulation- Clarifying Misconceptions. My sense is that some are panicking at the thought of being out of compliance.  While being out of compliance is never a good thing, we encourage you not to panic.  Yes, your institution needs to be in compliance and yes, you should have been by July 1, 2011, but you are not alone if you are confused and out of compliance.

The following aims to clarify some of the misconceptions and help your institution provide the necessary information to students, and get you into compliance.

Misconception #1: The federal law was repealed so we do not need to establish a complaint process.

Only 34 CFR 600.9(c) was vacated by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the complaint process portion of the regulation is still in place:

§ 668.43 (b) Institutional Information

(b) The institution must make available for review to any enrolled or prospective student upon request, a copy of the documents describing the institution’s accreditation and its State, Federal, or tribal approval or licensing. The institution must also provide its students or prospective students with contact information for filing complaints with its accreditor and with its State approval or licensing entity and any other relevant State official or agency that would appropriately handle a student’s complaint.

The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations including this regulation can be found here.

Misconception #2: The complaint process is a complicated and work-intensive burden.  Of course none of us are looking for extra work to be piled on and this is just one more thing to manage, but the complaint process information does not have to be unduly complex to meet the requirements.  Here’s what is necessary:

  • The information needs to be provided to prospective and concurrent students.
  • The information needs to be provided to both distance and face-to-face students.
  • This information needs to be provided to the students and not just available upon request.
  • The complaint process information needs to be accessible and easy to find.  See Russ’ excellent suggestions.
  • In a clear and concise paragraph, state your institution’s complaint process and emphasize that all student grievances are first handled internally.  In reality, most grievances will be resolved at the institution level.
  • State that if a complaint is not resolved satisfactorily internally, the student may then file a grievance with the regulatory agency in the state where they are receiving instruction and/or the institution’s accrediting agency.   Students attending your institution for face-to-face classes should file any complaints with the regulatory agency where the institution is located, not in their state of residence.
  • Provide contact information for complaint processes for both your accrediting agency and the state agencies.
  • We encourage you to have one person manage the contact list to make updates as needed.
  • Your institution needs to have and maintain its own list. It could look similar to the example we gave previously from the State Higher Education Executive Offices (SHEEO), however, you cannot simply link to an external comprehensive source.
  • Here are a few excellent examples of clearly articulated complaint processes:

Your institution is required to provide this information to the students. What they do with it is up to them.   On a related note, we have had people inquire about what sort of things students might complain about. Students will be students! I could probably write an entire blog about things students file grievances for from my student affairs experiences. Essentially, anything that the student is unsatisfied about with the institution could lead to a complaint.

Regardless of the complaint, the student needs to have access to information about contacting the accrediting agency and the state approval agency where the student is located.

Misconception #3: If a state doesn’t have a complaint process I don’t need to do anything. Not so fast, 668.43 (b) was not addressed specifically in the second Dear Colleague letter from April 2011, so there remains a requirement to list every state agency where you serve students. 

§ 600.9   State authorization.

(a)(1) An institution described under §§600.4, 600.5, and 600.6 is legally authorized by a State if the State has a process to review and appropriately act on complaints concerning the institution including enforcing applicable State laws, and the institution meets the provisions of paragraphs (a)(1)(i), (a)(1)(ii), or (b) of this section.

If a state agency does not have a complaint process an institution may request a one-year extension from the appropriate state agency. Each institution is responsible for obtaining its own extension. You can work with your coordinating board to request one on your behalf, but each institution bears the ultimate responsibility.  Information about seeking an extension is in the Federal Register on page 66833:

Implementation Date of These Regulations
While the Secretary has designated amended §600.9(a) and (b) as being effective July 1 2011, we recognize that a State may be unable to provide appropriate State authorizations to its institutions by that date.  We are providing that the institutions unable to obtain State authorization in that State may request a one-year extension of the effective date of these final regulations to July 1, 2012, and if necessary, an effective date to July 1, 2013.  To receive an extension of the effective date of amended §600.9(a) and (b) for institutions in a State, an institution must obtain from the State an explanation of how a one-year extension will permit the State to modify its procedures to comply with amended §600.9.

As an example, we recently talked to representatives from all of the public colleges in Wyoming.  Since their state does not have a complaint process, they are expected to obtain letters from Wyoming’s regulatory agency granting them an extension.

Hopefully this information brings some clarity to the complaint process issue.  If you have additional examples of complaint process web pages please add them via the comments section below.

Megan Raymond
Manager, Events & Programs, WCET

Russ Poulin
Deputy Director, WCET

State Approval page:   http://wcet.wiche.edu/advance/state-approval
Twitter:  @wcet_info      State Approval Hashtag: #stateapp

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Megan Raymond, assistant director for programs and sponsorship at WCET, the leader in the practice, policy, and advocacy of technology-enhanced learning in higher education. She directs various events and programs including the Annual Meeting and WCET's monthly webcast series. Raymond builds relationships with corporate sponsors invested in the WCET community and edtech as the contact for sponsorship. She has been with WCET since 2007. Prior to this, she was the assistant director of housing and conference services at Fort Lewis College, a small liberal arts college in Colorado. She directed a successful conference program, adjudicated student conduct, and trained and managed 30 student staff members. If it weren't for her passion for improving access to higher education, she'd likely live in the remote mountains and spend her days exploring by bike or foot, fortunately she gets to do both as much as possible. She has a BS in marketing and a MS in Health and Nutrition Education

6 thoughts on “Further Clarification about Federal Complaint Process Requirement

  1. Is § 668.43 (b) a descendant of Section 494C(j) of the Higher Education Act of 1965?

    If there are colleges and universities still referring to 494C(j) in their publications, exactly how long would that indicate they’ve been out of compliance?

    Russ Poulin: “There was also some institutions that thought that the regulations REQUIRED students to bypass the local processes.”

    My University did one better: they don’t appear to have published an internal complaint procedure at all and when I asked about that, they wrote me an e-mail last year that their internal complaint procedure itself is to report directly to the State Department of Education (even though there is no University publication that states that). I pointed out that would make no sense as an internal complaint procedure, to jump directly to an external complaint procedure, but they broke off the correspondence at that point.

  2. As director of the Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision in New York State, I was dismayed by misconception #2. It seems that all complaints must first be handled by the institution. In NYS, we encourage schools to have their own process. However, we do not require students to go through the school’s process first. There are cases where students may fear retribution and are reluctant to seek the school’s input. Discouraged, they may not seek further help. The students should have the right to seek the state’s intervention first if they so choose.

    1. Carole –
      Thank you for the clarification for New York. We had talked to regulators in some other states who automatically send the students back to the institution if they have not sought to use those internal processes first. Many states don’t have the staff to handle many complaints and going through the institution helps to sift through some of the complaints.

      There was also some institutions that thought that the regulations REQUIRED students to bypass the local processes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      Students are free to do what they will. Is still my RECOMMENDATION that in most cases the student is best served to try the internal processes first.

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