Neg Reg Committee Kicks Off Third Session With Distance Education

By Allie Arcese, Sr. Director of Strategic Communications & Engagement

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Higher education stakeholders tasked with developing regulations for accreditation, among several other issues, reconvened Monday for their third session, spending the day focusing on proposed changes to regulations for distance education. The full negotiated rulemaking committee worked its way through a report from the subcommittee focused on distance education.

The subcommittee’s nearly 100-page report contained changes to several definitions that could impact financial aid, such as a new definition for “academic engagement” in a course. The subcommittee gave a list of several criteria for academic engagement, including but not limited to things like attending a “synchronous class, lecture, or recitation, physically or online,” with opportunity for direct interaction; submitting an assignment; taking an assessment or exam; participating in an interactive “tutorial, webinar, or other interactive computer-assisted instruction;” participating in a study group, group project, or other online discussion; and interacting with the instructor.

Susan Hurst of Ouachita Baptist University, representing financial aid administrators, emphasized that the definition is necessary “from a financial aid perspective,” with respect to the return of Title IV funds.

“There has to be a point in time where you can clearly determine the student is no longer participating in the coursework for which they’re getting Title IV aid, which is what we’re trying to do here,” she said. The definition, she added, should allow the aid office “to determine when the student stops attendance in the course.”

The proposed definition of academic engagement in 600.2 is very similar to the definitions of “academic attendance” and “attendance at an academically-related activity” in the current Return of Title IV Funds (R2T4) regulations in 668.22(l)(7)(i). Its placement in 600.2 rather than only in 668.22 would apply the same definition to other contexts, such as distance education.

The group discussed what exactly constitutes active participation in an online or distance education course, and whether a student should be penalized for attending the class, taking notes, paying attention, but not directly engaging through class discussions or other methods.

The committee also spent a significant amount of time debating whether discussing definitions within the distance education section was considered a subtopic of discussion, thus allowing alternate negotiators to contribute, before moving on to a discussion on whether the definition for active engagement should be amended to account for earning an industry-recognized credential, certificate, badge, or similar conferred award.

Federal negotiator Annmarie Weisman said that discussion brought the group “a little off track” and that the intent of defining academic engagement was to identify “the very detailed behaviors that would get someone toward earning that credential.”

“We want the more behavior-oriented items that the actual student has to do—not the result of what you achieve at the end with your credential, whether that be a certificate, a badge, a diploma, a degree,” she said. “I think then we start to have to add too many options and … it becomes really tricky in terms of which institutions have which requirements.”

With regard to the proposed definition for a clock hour, several negotiators took issue with the use of the word “synchronous,” as some programs might require students to complete work away from the computer, such as in a cosmetology or massage therapy program.

While the Department of Education (ED) originally proposed eliminating part of the definition for a correspondence course that stated that interaction is primarily initiated by students, the subcommittee requested to re-insert that language “because it was an important distinguishing factor between correspondence courses and distance education,” according to the subcommittee report.

The subcommittee members also expressed concern over ED’s initial proposal that would largely strike the current time-based standards in the definition of a credit hour. After listening to the concerns of the distance education subcommittee, ED proposed language that would maintain time-based requirements relative to academic classroom instruction. Some committee members were concerned changing the definition could open up the potential for fraud and abuse.

Daniel Elkins, a negotiator representing veterans, said for example that the credit hour structure prevents institutions from “charging for nine credits worth of funds for a four- or five-week course of instruction.”

With regard to the re-worked definition of distance education and what constitutes “regular and substantive interaction,” the group discussed the subcommittee’s decision to use the term “content expert” as opposed to faculty member. Jillian Klein, a negotiator representing private for-profit institutions who sat on the subcommittee, said that language was used to account for teaching assistants or others who might interact with students.

ED also proposed including a definition for a correspondence student to establish limits on how many correspondence courses and students an institution can have and still remain eligible for Title IV aid. The lack of the definition currently leaves “substantial ambiguity,” ED has argued. ED originally proposed defining a correspondence student as one enrolled only in correspondence courses, but the subcommittee said that definition could create a loophole: institutions could make sure a student enrolled in one on-campus or distance education course to avoid being counted as a correspondence student. Incorporating feedback from the subcommittee, ED adjusted the language to use a 50 percent threshold.

Throughout the negotiated rulemaking process, ED has also sought to make changes to return of Title IV (R2T4) provisions. ED’s current proposal, intended to simplify the treatment of modules, would consider a student to have completed a payment period or period of enrollment if the student completed a module(s) that included at least half the days in the payment period, or if the student completed a module(s) with coursework comprising at least half-time enrollment status.

Despite the progress made throughout the day, some committee members still expressed concern over the number of topics to be covered in one negotiated rulemaking convening, and whether the motivation was truly to improve higher education policy.

At the beginning of the day Monday, Barbara Gellman-Danley, representing regional accrediting agencies, said that point was the “elephant in the room.”

“How much of this is politics, and how much of this is valid improvement of higher education?” she said. “It feels to me that there are some terrific ideas and real opportunities, and great subcommittee discussions, and there are other areas that it doesn’t really matter what we’re going to say because it’s being driven by the White House or it’s being driven by whatever or whomever.”

“I don’t think we’re naive enough not to think that’s the case,” she continued. “But I would like our time to be spent on the latter improvement of higher education for the millions of students in this country and the communities that they serve, because it feels like a lot of this is politics.”

The committee will reconvene each morning through Thursday to continue discussions, and will conduct a fourth session next week. All sessions will be livestreamed by ED.


Publication Date: 3/26/2019

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