Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report concluding:
“We concluded that Western Governors University did not comply with the institutional eligibility requirement that limits the percentage of regular students who may enroll in correspondence courses. Therefore, the Department should require the school to return the $712,670,616 in Title IV funds it received from July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2016, and any additional funds it received after June 30, 2016.”
This recommendation is based upon the OIG’s interpretation “regular and substantive interaction.” The phrase appears in Chapter 34, §600.2 of the Department’s definitions of the term “distance education” as a means to delineate it from “correspondence education.” Institutions can grant Title IV aid for only a limited number of correspondence courses.
Western Governors University (WGU) created a webpage describing its position regarding how its leaders feel they complied with the regulations.
Blog Post Series
This is the first in a series of blog posts regarding the OIG’s actions. Today we focus on our history on this issue and on the notion of “interaction.” In a future post (or posts?), we are planning to talk about:
- The notions of “regular” and “substantive,”
- the specific application of “regular and substantive interaction” in the WGU case,
- what that might mean to others offering competency-based education (CBE) and distance education, and
- what you should do about it.
Improving Quality and Access Do Not Matter?
In our initial look at the report, Van Davis (Associate Vice President of Higher Education Research and Policy) and I took particular note of this comment on page 6 of the OIG’s report on WGU:
“We (OIG) did not assess whether the school’s model was improving educational quality or expanding access to higher education. We are not withdrawing our findings or the corresponding recommendations.”
While we will say more about the report in upcoming posts, we felt that saying that it does not matter whether an institution actually serves students well is an astonishing. This is a severely troubling statement.
Departmental Guidance on “Regular and Substantive Interaction”
The interpretation has been difficult. I have been following this issue since I first reviewed findings of an audit report on St. Mary-of-the-Woods College back in 2012. That post consistently remains one of our top viewed posts each year. Last I heard, the recommendations in this report have yet to be resolved. A final resolution for WGU might have a similar fate.
That report was issued five years ago. In the intervening time, the communications from the Department of Education in communicating its expectations on how institutions are supposed to comply have been few and far between. In August, 2016, WCET published a great post by Myk Garn (Assistant Vice Chancellor for New Learning Models with the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia) on “Why We Need to Stop Using ‘Self-Paced’ in CBE Descriptions.” Because of the minimal guidance, the issues raised by Myk, and my worry that people were relying on the St. Mary-of-the-Woods College blog post as their guidance, Van Davis and I reviewed all the materials we could find. After reviewing “Dear Colleague” letters, the financial aid handbook, and audit reports, we penned the post “Interpreting what is Required for ‘Regular and Substantive Interaction’” in September, 2016 to assist institutional personnel seeking to comply with the regulation.
From the St. Mary-of-the-Woods report to our review last year and culminating with the OIG findings on WGU, OIG interpretations and how it applied those interpretations changed. Many of the essential points remain the same, but important new criteria have been added over time. Van and I were communicating yesterday on some of the criteria applied to WGU and wondered “where did that come from?” We will get into more specifics in a future post.
Bottom line: The Department of Education is usually very clear in stating the criteria and measures that will be used in assuring compliance with federal financial aid laws. This is not the case on this issue.
When is Interaction Not Interaction?
The idea of “regular and substantive interaction” is anchored in a noble goal that we all support. We do not want federal financial aid dollars going to fraudulent educational activities. There were fraudulent correspondence courses in the past in which the instruction was left mainly to the student’s own devices. As a result, severe limitations were placed on the number of correspondence courses that could be included in an institutions financial aid package.
The notion of “interaction” was used as the main line of demarcation between correspondence and distance education. The problem is that the notion of quality academic interaction is not really what is defined in the regulation. In the Department’s definition of “correspondence course”:
“Interaction between the instructor and student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced.”
The OIG is looking for interaction that is:
- Initiated by the faculty person.
- On a schedule set by the faculty person.
That’s not interaction, that’s dissemination. Both Merriam-Webster and I have a richer view of “interaction” as an activity that is more give and take and not one-way:
The problem with applying that definition to competency-based education is that:
- Interaction with a student is far more frequent than in a traditional course. Ironically, CBE courses are being called correspondence courses (which have almost no interaction) simply because of who initiates much of the activity.
- The student has more control over the schedule for interaction. CBE is popular with adults who need flexibility in their timing. In correspondence education, students were allowed to float on their own with long stretches of inactivity. That does not happen in good CBE instruction as there is frequent contact to make sure that the student is progressing toward his or her goals.
Bottom line: In talking about the high ideals of interaction to the public, the OIG is playing off the Merriam-Webster notion of interaction that is probably resident in most of our minds. Meanwhile, in applying their definition in practice, they are expecting compliance with an historic model of faculty lecture, dissemination, and control. CBE is not someone lecturing for 54 minutes and asking “any questions” in the last minute. That’s not good interaction in any instructional setting, including face-to-face. Such poor interaction is simply not possible in CBE instruction.
What Might Happen?
The OIG is making a recommendation and this is not the final word. From Michael Goldstein (Cooley, LLP):
“The IG’s report and recommendations go to Federal Student Aid, which decides what, if any, action should be taken. (The “if any” is directly from the IG transmittal.) That involves a further, and often lengthy, review process. The ultimate decision authority is the Secretary.”
Lengthy? Remember that the St. Mary-of-the-Woods report was released in 2012.
Watch for more to come in upcoming posts.
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies