Some new federal regulations may be coming your way and we need to make our voice heard. We need your help in addressing concerns in four areas: ensuring equity for financial aid, student identity, accessibility, and state authorization of distance education.
The Higher Education Act
This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965. It’s long title declares it to be: “An Act to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in post-secondary and higher education.”
The 1965 version of the Act was 58 pages.
The Act was the beginning of Congress’s attempt to codify the relationships that the federal government has with higher education. Over the years, the rules for institutions to remain eligible to offer federal financial aid have grown. Congress uses it as a hammer to impose additional requirements on colleges. Although the Act is supposed to be “reauthorized” every five years, the last time such action was taken was 2008.
The 2008 version weighed in at 432 pages. Seven years later, the Department has yet to implement all of the provisions growing out of the last Act. Life is more complicated, I guess.
We Need Your Help
Congress is finally moving forward on the next reauthorization. Hearings are being held and we think that they may actually have some success in taking real action.
We’ve identified four issues (regarding distance education and technology-mediated learning) on which we would like to see (or not see) action. There are more, but these items rose to the top in several recent discussions with Steering Committee representatives, advisors, and WCET members.
Below is a brief outline of the issues. We need your feedback and invite you to let us know if there are others that should be added to the list.
The Four Issues
1) Ensuring Equity
Think of a college student. Did you think of a young person between 18 and 22 who lives on campus? Increasingly, that is not the norm. Unfortunately, policymakers are often unable to overcome the fixation on the “traditional” student.
Thank you to Christina Sedney of the Adult College Completion Network for unearthing the following statistics from the CLASP brief “Yesterday’s Non-Traditional Student is Today’s Traditional Student” (Updated January 14, 2015):
- Four in 10 undergraduate students are 25 years or older, a 4 percentage point increase from 2008[i].
- From 2012 to 2022, the non-traditionally aged student enrollment in college is projected to grow more than twice as fast as for traditional age students (8.7% and 21.7%, respectively)[ii].
- 51% of undergraduate students are classified as independent (meaning: 24 years or older, married, responsible for legal dependents other than a spouse, orphans or wards of the court [or were wards of the court until age 18], veterans of the U.S. armed services, or homeless or at risk of homelessness)[iii].
What we would like to see:
1.1 Financial aid rules should treat learners equally as much as possible, regardless of mode of instruction, full-time/part-time status, month of the year, or other irrelevant characteristics that disadvantage the non-traditional learner. Specifically, don’t limit aid just because a student is taking distance courses.
1.2 Return to the year-round Pell Grant.
1.3 Develop reasonable accommodations for educational innovations, such as competency-based education, adaptive learning, prior learning assessment, alternative providers, and innovations of which we’ve not yet dreamed.
2) Student Identity / Fraud / Academic Integrity
We’re all against fraud, which is the act of criminals using false identities to steal financial aid funds. This is a criminal activity and robs honest students of funds that could be available to them.
We’re all for academic integrity, which is keeping students from cheating on tests, papers, and assessments. While not a criminal activity, it devalues the work of honest students.
In February 2014, the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a scathing report regarding the Department’s and colleges’ lack of efforts in curtailing financial aid fraud. While the report makes some excellent recommendations, there are places in which they confuse fraud and academic integrity. Solutions for one may not work or may be too onerous for the other. The Department was supposed to issue a response by the end of Spring of 2014, but it has yet to be published.
What we would like to see (based on the recommendations from the OIG report). Some of these recommendations might best be handled outside of HEA, but are added for completeness sake. See my earlier blog post for a more complete discussion:
2.1 Institutions should verify student identify at enrollment. This should apply to all students, not just distance education students.
2.2 Reject the OIG’s recommendation to have independent auditors review student identify verification systems.
2.3 Require more frequent disbursements of aid. This should apply to all student, not just distance education students.
2.4 Better define first and last day of attendance for students who withdraw without officially notifying the institution. Simplify current, poorly defined rules, that greatly disadvantage and burden colleges offering distance education.
2.5 “Cost of attendance” calculations for students should reflect true costs. We reject earlier attempts to arbitrarily strip distance education students of the ability to count living expenses or computing costs as part of their “cost of attendance.”
2.6 The OIGs report does not address what may be the best deterrent to problems regarding student identity, that is education of front-line employees, such as faculty and student services staff. If they know what behaviors to monitor, they will catch unwanted activities much quicker than most of the other recommendations combined.
3) Accessibility of Educational Technologies
We’re all for equal access to educational technologies for those with disabilities.
Jarret Cummings from EDUCAUSE updated us on the TEACH ACT earlier this year:
“The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) worked with members of Congress last year to introduce the Technology, Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act (TEACH Act). The bill proposed to foster the development of voluntary guidelines for ‘electronic instructional materials and related technologies.’ Many higher education associations support this goal, believing that voluntary guidelines could help colleges and universities continue to improve in meeting the learning needs of students with disabilities. However, they have concerns that the bill as written would unintentionally hamper the use of technology to advance learning by all students, including those with disabilities.”
I met with Jarret recently. He continues to work with the NFB and others to develop new language that would be more universally acceptable.
What we would like to see:
3.1 Support for the agreement that is currently being forged by EDUCAUSE, NFB, and others. We’ll receive final judgment until we see the final language, but we have great trust in Jarret’s leadership in finding an equitable solution.
4) State Authorization of Distance Education
We’re all for the protection of students as consumers of distance education. In creating regulations, weigh the competing interests of state oversight, federal oversight for financial purposes, and both the responsibility and burden placed on institutions. On the latter point, institutions often highlight the burden while forgetting their responsibilities.
Yes, I’m very much invested in this one. I was on the Department of Education’s Negotiated Rulemaking team last year, which failed to come to consensus on new language for state authorization for distance education. The Department’s negotiators insisted on keeping a provision that would have disallowed states from issuing exemptions to any institution. We continue to object to that provision as it provided no real protection for students, but would have added considerably more work and confusion to the authorization process.
The ball is currently in the Department of Education’s court to issue regulations for public comment. They say that they are still on “pause” with no timeline for issuing the regulation. If it is not issued in the next few weeks, it is unlikely that we will see a new federal regulation this year.
What we would like to see (much of this is taken from the recommendations made jointly by OLC, UPCEA, and WCET last year. While there are more recommendations, I’m highlighting these three in this blog post):
4.1 Return to the 2010 Language. We recognize the affirmation by the U.S. Court of Appeals that the Department can use state authorization as a criterion for offering federal financial aid. As a basis for any future regulation, the Department should return to the state authorization language released in October 2010 that required an institution to “meet any State requirements for it to be legally offering postsecondary distance or correspondence education in that State. An institution must be able to document to the Secretary the State’s approval upon request.”
4.2 Recognize Reciprocity. We recommend that the Department continue to recognize reciprocity as a means to authorization. Through reciprocity, one state recognizes the authorization actions of another state participating in a reciprocal agreement. SARA’s progress to 24 states (as of this post) in less than 18 months indicates the success of this approach.
4.3 Exempt Military, Military Families, and the Veterans Administration Facilities. The Department should retain the proposed provision that exempts active military and their families. They should also work with states to update their state regulations to reflect this exemption.
You Turn – We’d Like Your Feedback
This is obviously an outline of a set of proposals. How would you improve them? What would you add? What other issues should be addressed? Would love hearing from you.
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
If you like our work, join WCET!
Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian
[i] Source: Author’s calculations using NCES PowerStats, Source: “2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:12),” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, calculated 12/09/2014.
[ii] Source: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014051.pdf, Author’s calculations using Table 21. Actual and projected numbers for total enrollment in all postsecondary degree-granting institutions, by age group, sex, and attendance status: Fall 1997 through fall 2022, Projections of Education Statistics to 2022, February 2014.
[iii] Source: Author’s calculations using NCES PowerStats, Source: “2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 12),” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, calculated 12/09/2014.