Federal Student Complaint Requirements – Is Your Institution in Compliance Today?

Does your institution have a well designed, easily understood, and compliant complaint process? Today we welcome Cheryl Dowd, Director of the State Authorization Network, and Jennifer L. Parks, Director, Midwestern State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (M-SARA), to review the federal student complaint requirements. They also provide recommendations for implementation of the complaint process notification and review the SARA student complaint process.

Thank you Cheryl and Jennifer for your helpful post and support!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET


The complaint process for students can be very confusing and complex. The institution’s goal should be a “student friendly” explanation of the complaint process and MUST include the contact information for the institution’s accreditor and location of the appropriate state agency for the student’s complaint.

In 2010, when the first set of Federal regulations for State authorization of distance education were released, and then ultimately vacated by the courts, there was another important regulation released. Another part of the “program integrity” regulatory changes was not vacated and remains enforceable for compliance by institutions.

Do you all remember §34 CFR 668.43 (b)?

This regulation requires institutions to notify all current and prospective students of the process and contact information for filing complaints. Now that the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) is the state compliance mechanism for many institutions for their out-of-state activities, additional questions about the impact of SARA on this regulation have been raised. In this post we will address the requirements, offer direction for implementation, and share more information about the SARA complaint process.

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What Does the Regulation Say?

Let’s start with the regulation itself:

  • 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.

 A July 2011 WCET blog post, Federal Student Complaint Regulations – Common Misconceptions, included a helpful chart. The chart breaks down the requirements provided in this regulation. In essence, there are three main points the institution must follow related to notification of a complaint process.

  1. The information is to be for Enrolled AND Prospective Students.
  2. The information is for BOTH face to face students AND online students.
  3. Contact information must include where to file a complaint with the institution’s:
  4. Accreditor, AND
  5. Appropriate state approval entity (including SARA Portal Agency).
    • Do you also remember 34 CFR 600.9 (a) (1)? This part of the “program integrity” regulatory changes of 2010 also remains enforceable and requires states to have a “process to review and appropriately act on complaints concerning the institution…….”.

You may wonder, what type of complaints are we talking about here? This process refers to the student’s available recourse if the student has exhausted all possible avenues for complaints at the institution related to consumer protection and the issue has not been resolved to the student’s satisfaction. There are also rare circumstances in which a student may take a complaint to a state entity if the institution has been non-responsive, abusive to the student, or otherwise has lost the confidence of the student. The issues that could be reviewed outside of the institution do NOT typically include issues related to grade disputes or student conduct. The state entities that process these inquiries are well-versed on when to take a complaint or refer a student back to the college or university.

Suggestions for implementation of the complaint process notification:

  • Determine your institution’s best communication avenues/locations (i.e. website etc.) so that information is easily accessible for all prospective and enrolled students.
    • A suggestion from the blog, previously mentioned above, indicated that you may wish to work with your financial aid and admissions offices. These offices are also required to provide information for current and prospective students. Integration of the notifications may provide a more efficient path to reach enrolled and prospective students.
  • Write a clear and “student friendly” description of the institution’s complaint process and under what circumstances a student may seek additional recourse outside of the institution.
    • We recommend that you specifically indicate that the student must complete the institution’s own complaint process before seeking external resolution of the issue.
  • If this notice is used in multiple locations, use the exact same notice to eliminate the possibility of ambiguity or conflicting language.
  • Provide the contact information for filing a complaint with your institution’s accrediting agency.
  • If your institution is a SARA institution, indicate that students should file their complaints with the SARA State Portal Entity for the home state of your institution, unless the student is located in California or Massachusetts. If the student is located in California or Massachusetts, indicate the location for complaints in those states as provided in the list of state contacts (*note that these are the remaining states that are non-SARA and you should update as that status may change).
    • Provide the contact information for filing complaints with the specific SARA State Portal Entity for the home state of your institution. (The SARA complaint process is described below)
    • Although the SARA State Portal Entity is the correct location for the student to file a complaint, it may be best practices to provide the contact information for all state contacts for filing complaints should the student wish to inquire there.
  • If your institutions is NOT a SARA institution, indicate that the student may choose to file a complaint with his or her state of residence and provide the list of state contacts.
  • Please note these caveats when providing the state contacts for the state agencies for filing complaints in the states your institution offers activity:
    • We do not suggest linking to the SHEEO list as it has not been updated.
    • The state contacts list we provide here is date stamped and may be used for reference. Please remember that the contacts you provide should be reviewed on a periodic basis to guarantee that they are current.
    • Currently there is no agency for complaints in California for public or non-profit out-of-state institutions. SAN will continue to pursue an answer.
  • Periodically review your notification and contact lists to ensure that they are up to date and that the language is clear.

SARA Complaint Process:

Three blocks with the numbers 1, 2, 3One of the most beneficial outcomes of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) is that it streamlines the path student complaints follow when the student and the institution are located in different states. The SARA student complaint process incorporates processes outlined in Federal code and required by accreditors but also clarifies in which state a student can file a complaint that rises above the institutional level.

As described previously, each state is required under §34 CFR 600.9 (a) (1) to have an appropriate process and entity to address student consumer complaints about the institution in which a student is or was previously enrolled. When a state and a school agree to participate in SARA, they also agree that when a student complaint rises to the state level for resolution, it is ultimately resolved by the SARA state portal entity in the state in which the institution is located. As with the general student complaint process, grade disputes and student conduct complaints cannot be addressed through the SARA process. In the SARA process, those types of complaints are resolved at the institutional level.

Information about filing complaints through the SARA process:

Every SARA institution is required to provide information on its institutional website explaining how students who attend the institution from another state via distance education can appeal a complaint that has exhausted the institutional complaint process. If after exhausting the institutional process a student feels a complaint has still not been adequately addressed, the student can file a complaint with the SARA State Portal Entity of the state in which the institution is located. The state portal entity is required to provide information on its portal entity website explaining how students located in other SARA states but attending SARA institutions in that state can escalate complaints to the state portal entity.

More detailed information about the SARA student complaint process can also be found on the NC-SARA website and in the NC-SARA manual.

Process: Student files complaint. Either Complaint is resolved at the institution level and the process ends, with no notification to NC SARA or State Portal Agency OR, if complaint is not resolved student may appeal to portal agency in the home state of the institution. When student appeals, the home state portal notifies NC Sara and the host state where student is located of the appealed complaint. Home state portal agencies must report status of complaints to NC Sara quarterly.

Suggestions for implementation of SARA complaint process notification:

  • Familiarize institutional compliance and state authorization personnel with the SARA complaint process.
  • Provide language, diagrams and relevant links to help students understand how the SARA (post-institutional) complaint process is different from the process for students attending the institution on campus, via distance education in the same state, or via distance education from a non-SARA state.
    • Provide this information in the same places all other student complaint information is provided.
    • Schedule periodic reviews of SARA policies and website content to make sure all information is up to date and that all links work properly.

Conclusion:

If you are with an institution, you will want to check at your institution to see what, where, and how the institution is notifying students about its complaint process. The bottom line that you may wish to share with others at your institution includes the following:

  1. The institution is required by federal regulation, 34 CFR 668.43 (b), to provide contact information for filing complaints if the institution wishes to participate in Title IV funding (and most institutions do).
  2. The institution MUST supply current and prospective students with the contact information for the appropriate state agency for complaints and contact information for the institution’s accrediting body.
    • The contact information MUST be accessible to all students regardless of whether the student is taking courses face to face or online.
  3. If the institution participates in SARA, the institution should clearly explain the complaint process for students located in other SARA states and MUST direct them to the portal entity that authorizes the institution.

The WCET State Authorization Network (SAN) and National Council – State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) are available to support your institution in its research and best practices for implementation of processes to meet the federal and state regulations for state authorization compliance.

 

Cheryl Dowd
Cheryl Dowd
Director, State Authorization Network
WCET

 

 

J Parks author photo


Jennifer L. Parks
Director, Midwestern State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (M-SARA)
Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC)

 

 

 


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