Online colleges win reprieve in federal law backpedaling

Summary:Controversial federal regulation H.R. 2117 has now passed with Democratic support.

A controversial federal regulation that threatened to change the face of online qualifications and learning has been struck down in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On Feb. 29, H.R. 2117, also known as the Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act was passed 303-114, with 69 Democrats voting yes. However, the vote is largely considered symbolic, as it means the comments of educational establishments and higher education professionals have been noted after a year of continual complaints.

The original legislation was intended to ensure that schools adhered to state accreditation and rules. If a college chose not to comply, then its federal funding would be withdrawn -- which costs U.S. taxpayers billions per year in student aid.

By taking this approach, the Department of Education aimed to ensure low-quality educational establishments would be more rigorously regulated, and the rapid rise in online education would become more firmly established -- as well as being required to adhere to the same rules as campus-based outlets.

After months of criticism from the time the rules were put in to effect last July, the issues associated with the regulations were fully realized.

H.R. 2117 has repealed two elements of previous regulations:

The term 'credit hour':

A change in the federal definition of a credit.

In order to receive financial help, a student has to fulfill the requirements set by a 'credit hour' -- which is defined as one hour of direct faculty instruction and two hours outside of class over a period of 15 weeks -- or a 'reasonable' equivalent set by an academic institution.

Issues:

  • This type of definition best applies to 'traditional', class-bound learners.
  • How do you therefore define 'credit hours' for work-based programs, or classes where competency is examined at the end of the year for a qualification, rather than adhering to a certain amount of class hours?
  • It has been considered by some as a 'step backwards' -- as it forces more innovative learning facilities back in to traditional pigeon-holes.
  • Working adults who have to fit study around commitments would not necessarily be able to attend such hours, and therefore ma be denied financial aid from the state.
  • However, without a common definition, this means that less upright colleges can attribute whatever credits to how ever many hours they choose -- potentially damaging educational quality in the for-profit approach.

'State authorization rule':

All colleges and universities with online programs are required to seek permission if they wish to offer their courses in all 50 states. For online institutions, if they gain such approval, they are able to register students in states without any physical presence, due to the very nature of online studies.

Issues:

  • Every online provider is immediately restricted. Instead of being able to offer a course to students no matter where they reside, instead, separate approval has to be gained from every individual state.
  • This in turn means that online course providers have faced heavy expenditure in seeking permission and recruiting -- leading to redundancies and occasional closures.
  • Due to the need for permission, some institutions therefore may turn to the option of refusing students from states that require difficult or lengthy authorization processes.
  • However, without the need to seek approval, some course provides can break or ignore individual state laws.
  • This kind of ruling can be difficult to enforce, especially concerning purely online providers. Unless there is a physical campus, it is not necessarily possible to know what organisations are operating within a state.
  • Without regulation, funding can be received by operators breaking state rules.

It is not only a problem in terms of taxpayer expenditure, but how you protect students that are enrolling on online programs. If a school has not complied with state regulations, then a possible conclusion is that a student's qualification or degree may not be authorized, and therefore valid, within a state.

However, the Department of Education is faced with a difficult quandary -- how best to ensure student protection, without resorting to stifling innovative learning methods, non-traditional working students and pigeon-holing academic institution, therefore forcing them to restrict access to education?

H.R. 2117 means that online institutions can carry on, business as usual, at least for the moment. Whether it was the best option, however, is debatable.

There has to be some kind of regulation and basis that stands as a solid foundation for a degree qualification -- however, as the original bill highlighted, the common definition of a 'credit hour' was vague at best. Without commonly-defined standards, the overall quality of education may suffer, leading to wasted expenditure both by student and taxpayer.

By repealing, it is altogether probable that many a low-quality course provider is rubbing its hands in glee, and retains the right to define its qualification without federal snooping.

However, it is not right to take a step backwards and force innovative models, the ones that do promote quality and flexibility in education, to extreme expenses and strictly defined study methods.

Overall, the credit hour and state authorization rules aren't good enough. Regulation is required in order to maintain quality colleges, but the issue is wider than one state. Online providers often cater for students no matter the location, and heavy-handed restriction isn't the right path to take to promote education. Instead, a way should be sought to regulate sensibly without restricting or deterring non-traditional students -- a difficult task the Department of Education has to face.

Image credit: Andrea Tornabene

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Topics: Browser

About

Charlie Osborne, a medical anthropologist who studied at the University of Kent, UK, is a journalist, freelance photographer and former teacher. She has spent years travelling and working across Europe and the Middle East as a teacher, and has been involved in the running of businesses ranging from media and events to B2B sales. Charli... Full Bio

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