NASFAA Comments on State Authorization for Distance Education NPRM

By Jill Desjean, Policy & Federal Relations Staff

NASFAA submitted written comments this week to the Department of Education (ED) on its proposed rules regarding state authorization for distance education programs.

While supporting ED’s efforts to clarify state authorization regulations for distance education programs, in its comments NASFAA expressed concern over some of the approaches ED proposes to employ in the stated interest of consumer protection for students. NASFAA reminded ED that distance education programs reflect the needs of a changing student population for whom access to higher education requires the flexibility only distance education offers. In regulating distance education programs, NASFAA asked ED to recognize the importance of balancing administrative burden against the potential benefits of weeding out bad actors from the distance education realm.

One important update to the 2010 rules on this topic (which were later vacated by court order in 2011) was the substitution of institutional participation in state authorization reciprocity agreements for individual authorization in each state the institution enrolls students. NASFAA commended ED on its decision to include this provision in the new regulations in light of the emergence of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) and widespread enrollment in NC-SARA by states and institutions since the issuance of the 2010 regulations.

NASFAA requested clarification in several areas where the proposed regulations were vague or conflicting, including distinguishing between distance education programs and distance education coursework, and defining “adverse accrediting action.” NASFAA also sought confirmation that the proposed rules do not apply to coursework provided under a written agreement described in 668.5.

NASFAA expressed concern over the addition of 10 new public and individual institutional disclosures for prospective and enrolled distance education students. Among NASFAA’s recommendations was that ED replace language requiring the disclosure of all adverse state and accrediting agency actions with NC-SARA’s language on this topic, which narrows the state and accrediting actions that must be disclosed, and which NASFAA believes better preserves institutions’ right to due process and limits disclosures to only those most relevant to students.

Other new institutional disclosures, required for every state in which the institution enrolls distance education students, include describing the consumer complaint process; the licensure or certification requirements and whether individual programs meet those requirements; and state refund policies. Acknowledging the need for transparency with respect to consumer rights, NASFAA noted the inefficiency of thousands of schools gathering the same information from each state. Where appropriate, NASFAA made recommendations for this information to be collected by ED or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and stored in an online portal to which institutions could link, thereby satisfying institutional disclosure requirements.


Publication Date: 8/25/2016

David S | 8/30/2016 10:17:58 AM

You know those car commercials that end with fine print across the screen that says "offer not valid in..." followed by a list of states? That's what these regulations will turn distance ed into. Now, I believe that distance ed has its issues and needs to be carefully regulated. But the goal here was to give students two states to complain to if they're dissatisfied instead of one, and I'm not sure how much value that really adds. The end result is going to be that schools/states are not going to bother obtaining authorization from 49 other states plus DC and territories; it's costly and time'll be much easier to keep programs for in-state and surrounding state students only (and perhaps that's what some want anyway). To me, this is a complicated regulation with little if any benefits.

Peter G | 8/25/2016 1:16:30 PM

I agree with several of the points here, including a few that had not occurred to me previously.

Case in point, my institution has a warning from our accreditor this summer on an issue pertaining to execution of shared governance. Is that useful consumer information?

I tend to think it is not.

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