Federal Distance/Digital Actions of the Outgoing Administration and Congress

Since the inauguration, we have been very focused on what Jed Bartlett would say is “what’s next?” WCET Frontiers will be publishing a great deal in the weeks to come about the priorities of the new Biden Administration. However, today we share a look back on the pre-inauguration activities of Congress and the Department of Education under the Trump administration that will affect “what’s next.” So, “Ginger, get the popcorn” as we share two late term items of the Trump administration which have higher education (especially with a digital or distance learning bent) impacts that will carry over into 2021.

New Spending Bill for the 2021 Federal Fiscal Year

Late in December, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 was passed by Congress and was then signed into law on December 27, 2020. The Act funds the Federal government for fiscal year 2021. The text of this act is a mere 5593 pages! This government funding bill includes higher education provisions such as simplification of the student financial aid application (FAFSA). Wide ranging funding allocations for higher education that affects distance education can be found under multiple provisions of the act, including support for broadband telecommunication in rural areas, aid to some military affiliated students, and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA). Page numbers are shared based upon the pages of the overall Appropriations Act pdf document.

Key funding provisions of note that affect distance education for higher education include:

  • Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program (p.61)
    • Grants for telemedicine and distance learning services in rural areas.
  • National Guard Distance Learning Project (p.338)
    • Chief of the National Guard Bureau may permit use of equipment on reimbursable basis with the amount of reimbursement established on a case-by-case basis as directed by the Chief of the National Guard Bureau.
    • Amounts collected by the reimbursement are to be put towards the National Guard Distance Learning Project and available to defray costs for use of equipment and such funds not subject to fiscal year limitations.
  • Veterans Affairs Funding Provisions in Response to Coronavirus (p.545)
    • Authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to treat programs converted to distance learning due to the emergencies and health related situations the same as other education programs at educational institutions.
    • Includes for purposes of paying full housing allowance stipends for students in online-only courses due to institution pivot of face-to-face to online course delivery.
    • Note that this is not a permanent fix to veterans taking a fully online courseload getting only half of their housing allowance.
  • Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act 2021 (CRRSAA) (p.1823). – Specific for Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (p.1880)
    • Noteworthy difference from the Cares Act. The CRRSAA provides an allocated amount for students exclusively enrolled in distance education courses. (p. 1882-1883)
      • 1% allocation based on FTE of Pell recipients who were exclusively enrolled in distance education courses prior to the qualifying emergency.
      • 1% allocation based on total number of students who were Pell recipients and who were exclusively enrolled in distance education courses prior to the qualifying emergency.
    • Overall Higher Education Relief: combined $21 billion in COVID-19 Relief Aid.
      • $20.5 billion to public and non-profit colleges and universities.
      • $684 million to propriety schools.
    • Public and Non-profit institutions can use their awards for financial aid grants to students, student support activities, and to cover a variety of institutional costs including lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, faculty and staff trainings, and payroll.
    • Proprietary schools must use their awards exclusively for financial aid grants to students.
    • Allocated to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund II (HEERF II)
the U.S. white house
Photo by Jacob Morch on Unsplash

Other allocations in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 of note for higher education include:

  • District of Columbia – Federal Payment for Resident Tuition Support (p.545)
    • Eligible DC residents may receive funds to cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at public institution of higher education, or students my receive $2500 each year to attend an eligible private institution.
    • Awarding of funds may be prioritized based upon academic merit and need.
  • Historically Black College and University – Capital Financing Program Account (p.1050)
    • To subsidize loan principals for loans to support HBCUs.
    • For deferment of loans to eligible HBCU’s based upon need and financial responsibility score of 2.6 or less.

The funding provisions highlighted above will be administered by various Federal agencies including the Department of Education. We anticipate additional information and additional COVID-19 relief packages to be announced in the next few weeks under the new administration.

Department of Education Guidance

The other late release is the January 19, 2021, Guidance on Accreditation and Eligibility Requirements for Distance Education from the Department of Education. The guidance is intended to address the current requirements with respect to institutional eligibility for distance education given the August 31, 2020 Federal Register notice concerning rescission of the Dear Colleague Letter GEN-06-17.

Back in September 2006, which was the second term of the George W. Bush administration, the Department of Education released Dear Colleague Letter GEN-06-17 addressing accreditation requirements for institutions that participate in Title IV Federal financial aid programs and offer distance education programs. The guidance included a four-page letter that was sent to institutions that the Department had identified as having a primary accrediting agency that did not have distance education within its scope of recognition. This particular Dear Colleague Letter is identified on the Department website as “Maintained for Historical Purposes Only.”

Fast forward to August 31, 2020, the Secretary of the Department of Education announced in the Federal Register that the previously mentioned letter was being rescinded because it was one of several documents that were found to be outdated after conducting a review of previous guidance as directed by an Executive Order.

New Guidance on Accreditation and Eligibility Requirements for Distance Education was released by the Department on January 19, 2021. You will note that this guidance was released on the last full day of the previous administration. The guidance is addressed to accrediting agencies and institutions with current requirements for institutional eligibility for distance education. Note, the new release indicates that the requirements are waived until after the national emergency regarding the pandemic is lifted.

handwritten letter
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The guidance is provided within a document attached to the announcement titled: Department of Education Guidance on Accreditation and Eligibility Requirements for Distance Education. The key focus of this new guidance is to address that the previous view of a 50% threshold related to distance education in regard to participation in Title IV, HEA programs was in conflict with current Federal regulation, 34 CFR 668.8(m).

The now-rescinded previous guidance indicated that institutions were required to be evaluated or approved by an accrediting agency with distance education in its scope of recognition, if the institution offered more than 50% of its courses by distance education, enrolled more than 50% of its students in distance education, or offered more than 50% of its educational programs by distance education. However, for purposes of participation in Title IV HEA programs, 34 CFR 668.8(m), the effective regulation, directs that an institution that offers a program in whole or in part through telecommunications (the old term for distance education that is used in this current regulation), that the program must be accredited by an agency that has accreditation of distance education within its scope of recognition. So, this current regulation requires accreditation approval of an institution if as little as one program is offered at a distance.

The new guidance directs that before an institution offers “any” distance education programs eligible for Title IV, the institution is required to be evaluated and accredited by an agency recognized to review distance education for effective delivery of distance education. 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. This 50% threshold, as directed by Federal regulation 34 CFR 602.22(a)(1)(ii)(C), would cause the institution to seek a substantive change though the institution’s accrediting agency.

Guidance to the accrediting agencies reminds accrediting agencies that Federal regulation 34 CFR 602.27(a)(4) provides the process for an accrediting agency to add distance education to its scope of recognition. Upon written notification from the Department, distance education will be added to the agencies scope of recognition.

One should note that Department guidance is not binding and does not carry the force and effect of law. The guidance is meant to provide clarity and the viewpoint of the Department when applying the regulations. Unless changed by legislation (or an incoming administration), this guidance indicates the expectations to which accrediting agencies and institutions will be held.

So, What’s Next?

So, how might this affect you and what should you do about it?

Institutions should be aware and be prepared after the national pandemic emergency to ensure that their distance education programs are properly reviewed and accredited by an appropriate accreditation agency. Some accrediting agencies are no longer using the approval waivers provided by the Department and are holding institutions to pre-pandemic standards as much as possible.

Regarding higher education financial support, institutions may wish to seek further information to ensure that they may avail themselves of the various appropriations.

Stay tuned, because as of this writing, news reports indicate that higher education groups are asking for almost $100 billion more in coronavirus relief and the White House is aiming for another COVID relief package to be passed by Mid-March. We will keep you informed!

Having started with some West Wing quotes, I will close with one of my favorites that I used at a recent workshop: “Every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to reach a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that capacity may well be limitless.”

We are encountering many challenges and changes right now, but we will all continue to adapt, adjust, create, and innovate to support students. WCET will be there to report, analyze, and assist as we watch the direction, executive actions, and announcements from the Biden Administration.


Cheryl Dowd

Cheryl Dowd – Director,
WCET State Authorization Network
cdowd@wiche.edu  @dowdcm


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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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