Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, has made one thing clear from the beginning of her tenure: She’s a huge supporter of college online learning. This week she continued to follow through on her promise to support the cause. In an announcement on January 7, DeVos said she would change the rules for what counts as a course at the postsecondary level and as a result, extend federal funds to a wider range of postsecondary providers. The announcement is good news for certain institutions that have clashed with federal regulators in the past over what counts as a course, but not everyone is happy about DeVos’s latest announcements.
DeVos’s Proposed Changes
DeVos’s key change inolves the criteria used to determine what types of courses and programs are worthy of federal loans and grants. In essence, DeVos is proposing to give accrediting agencies more flexibility in approving programs that don’t fit traditional educational models, and this includes many college online learning programs.
Online courses and programs under current federal regulations often don’t qualify for Title IV funding. The reason is simple: For a course to qualify, it needs to meet minimum benchmarks for instructor-student contact hours. In the case of some online courses, students may spend less time engaging with qualified instructors. DeVos’s proposal would essentially change what counts as a “qualifiable” course or program.
As reported in the Washington Post on the day of DeVos’s announcement, under the proposal, the Education Department would grant “accreditors, and to a lesser extent colleges, more authority over how distance education, correspondence courses and credit hours are defined.” In the process, Obama-era rules would be overridden. Under Obama, strict guidelines were established to determine what counts as one hour of classroom instruction or faculty content.
According to the Washington Post, two other changes are also being proposed. First, accreditors will gain the right to determine who qualifies as an instructor in a college-level course without the Education Department’s approval. Second, new accrediting agencies will no longer need two years of experience to serve as gatekeepers in the federal financial aid program. The latter of these two rules may prove especially important in the for-profit coding schools that have already set up their own accountability task force. But as already noted, for-profit schools aren’t the only institutions that have a lot to gain from DeVos’s current proposals.
College Online Learning Likely to Receive Federal Funding Boost
The main beneficiaries of DeVos’ new federal guidelines will likely be online universities. Under the former administration, many for-profit primarily online universities were found to insufficiently educate their learners and prepare them for a career following graduation.
As late as September 2018, student loan default rates among graduates of for-profit institutions continued to rise.
Other institutions have faced similar headwinds. As previously reported on eLearning Inside, in September 2017, Western Governors University was told that it may owe up to $712 million to the federal government. The fine was recommended after an auditor’s report concluded the school was offering the equivalent to “correspondence courses” rather than courses that meet all the specific criteria needed to qualify for financial aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. Fortunately, for Western Governors University, the fine was actually a hangover from the previous administration’s efforts to crack down on the misuse of federal funds. As a result, Western Governors University’s grievances have been heard by the government.
While Western Governors University’s dispute is still being negotiated, if DeVos is able to fully implement her recent proposals, it seems likely that moving forward, Western Governors University and other online providers will be less likely to face similar charges.
In fact, if the proposals are all approved, how colleges and university define what counts as a course or program and even who counts as a qualified instructor will undergo a radical revision. But such changes are unlikely to be approved without some controversy. It seems likely, for example, that more traditional postsecondary institutions and accrediting bodies will push back, arguing that loosening the criteria used to determine what counts as a course, program, or qualified instructor threatens to erode educational standards.