The negotiated rulemaking committee focused on making changes to federal regulations governing accreditation issues wrapped up its second session on Friday by making a few minor changes to proposed regulatory language, and debating recommendations from the subcommittee examining the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant program.
The group began the day by apparently coming to agreement on minor changes to regulatory language, such as removing language related to the Robert P. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program, which has not been funded since 2012 and likely will not be funded again. The group also discussed accreditation regulatory language related to ensuring consistency in decision-making. While the Department of Education (ED) proposed deleting and rewriting a list of requirements for accrediting agencies related to standards that respect institutional mission and ensure educational qualify, several negotiators questioned whether most of ED’s proposed changes were necessary, and suggested rather retaining the existing standards while adding a line to address concerns about retroactive application of accreditation.
ED explained that because many students enroll at public or private nonprofit institutions that are pre-accredited, the language should ensure those students benefit from the final accreditation decision, should it occur after the student completes his or her program.
“As long as the student was enrolled in the institution or program during the period of pre-accreditation that resulted in the final decision, all credits earned during that enrollment are considered to have been earned from an accredited institution or program,” ED explained in written comments on the proposed language. “Without retroactive accreditation, new institutions or programs would be required to graduate at least one cohort of students from a program, even though students who completed the program would have no chance of having their credential recognized as accredited. This would be irresponsible for an institution to do and unfair for the students who may unwittingly go through such an program.”
Representatives from the TEACH Grant subcommittee also presented their recommendations to the full committee Friday morning. NASFAA’s Stephen Payne and Kyra Taylor of Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending presented the subcommittee’s recommendations for how to adjust the regulations, enhance communication, and provide additional counseling where necessary to prevent unintended grant-to-loan conversions. Currently, grant recipients need to certify every year by a certain deadline that they have completed a qualifying year of service, or risk having the grant converted to a loan.
The subcommittee proposed only allowing the grant-to-loan conversion to be triggered by the impossibility of completing the service requirement within the eight-year time period, increasing the intentionality of counseling and notifications to grant recipients, expanding the eligibility for a service-clock suspension and service year discharge, increasing the opportunity to complete the service requirement by making changes to which areas qualify, and allowing for conversion reconsideration.
During the public comment period in the afternoon, Victoria Lipsack, a teacher who had her grant converted to a loan, shared her story and how a lack of clarity over the required paperwork caused her grant to be converted.
“Like all teachers my first year of teaching was stressful and overwhelming. I worked very hard to ensure the best education for my students,” she said. “On top of the stress of becoming a new teacher, i didn’t know when i needed to submit my certification of teaching. I only learned that the certification was due a week before its deadline.”
Lipsack went on to say how she scrambled to get the paperwork completed, despite her school being closed for the summer, and was able to submit the paperwork on the day of the deadline.
“Then Aug. 4, 2014, I was struck with a hard blow. I was notified that my TEACH grant had converted to a loan,” she said. “Not only was I an underpaid, overworked new teacher, but now I had a loan that with interest accrued would cost over $20,000 to pay back. I couldn’t believe it. It must have been a mistake.”
Lipsack explained that because her servicer had processed the paperwork the following day, her submission was considered late, and the grant was converted to a loan, despite the fact that she still had seven years to complete her four-year service requirement.
“The committee should know that these high-need positions in low-income schools are taxing in so many ways, but when a TEACH grant is still a grant, it encourages teachers to keep going,” she said. “Living on a teacher’s salary at a low-income school, I had just enough to live. I loved teaching, but felt overwhelmed and defeated when my TEACH grant was converted. I taught at the middle school in South Phoenix for three years—three years that still would have qualified—but I left teaching and now I’m working in a non-qualifying position.”
The full committee had several questions about specific logistics of the subcommittee’s recommendations—such as whether a recipient could continually delay the start of the service-clock by dropping out and re-enrolling—and, feeling pressed for time, asked ED to hold a fourth negotiated rulemaking session in April, when the full committee would have more time to review recommendations from the subcommittees and work toward consensus. ED agreed to host a fourth session, which will take place April 1-3, 2019.
After lunch the committee moved on to discussing a controversial proposal on the geographic scope of accrediting agencies. ED’s Annmarie Weisman said the intent of the proposal was not to “force agencies to eliminate states from their scope or force institutions or programs to find new agencies.”
“What we really were trying to achieve is to recognize what I think most students would tell you is that regional agencies actually function as national accrediting agencies,” she said. “They’ve got additional locations and branch campuses in many other states that are outside of their traditional scope. But … we really do not expect regional agencies to reduce their scope to 10 states. We’ve eliminated any reference to specific numbers of states.”
Weisman went on to say that ED also wants to allow for more specialization for accrediting agencies, such as for open-enrollment institutions, tribal colleges and universities, minority-serving institutions, or others with unique missions.
ED rephrased the draft regulatory language to state that the geographic area of accrediting activities in one agency’s scope should not preclude the “inclusion of that same or a similar geographic area in another agency’s scope.” ED suggested language saying an agency must ensure its activities are limited to a state, if it is part of a state government, a region in which all of the institutions, additional locations, and branch campuses the agency accredits are located, or the United States.
In a note to the committee, ED explained that the original proposal was not “intended to force regional agencies to eliminate states from their scope or force institutions or programs to find new agencies.”
“Rather, it was designed to point out that most regional agencies actually function as national agencies since they accredit additional locations and branch campuses outside of their scope,” the note said. “To clarify that we do not expect existing regional agencies to reduce their scope to 10 states, we have eliminated the reference to specific numbers of states and have instead changed the definition to require that the agency’s scope include every state in which an institution, additional location or branch campus is located. Agencies are permitted to have overlapping geographic scope, which reflects current practice since agencies already accredit branch campuses that are in states that are part of the scope of other agencies.”
The committee proposed adding language to clarify that the limited region means the states within which an accreditor provides institutional accreditation, due to a concern that the language could be interpreted in a way that could force accreditors to take on more states if they accredit a branch location, for example, in one state.
The committee will reconvene at the end of March, after the third set of subcommittee meetings.
Publication Date: 2/25/2019