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Efforts to repeal new DoE regulations advance

online degrees

Momentum in Congress appears to be building to roll back a new set of education regulations that could impair the growth of online university programs, rules critics say amount to a heavy-handed federal intrusion into issues that should be left to the states and individual institutions.

At issue are two new regulations that took effect last Friday requiring online universities to secure authorizations from each state in which their students reside and establishing, for the first time, a federal definition of an academic credit hour.

But the measures have met with vigorous opposition from many education industry trade groups and associations, and bipartisan legislation to repeal them is now pending in both chambers of Congress.

Last week, Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) introduced a bill that would overturn the state authorization requirements and credit hour benchmark, while also barring the Department of Education from ever again trying to define a credit hour. The lawmakers maintain that decisions about individual programs and curricula should be left to the states and schools, and are arguing that the federal authorization requirement for online programs would either force schools to raise tuition rates to cover the expense of the red tape, or to trim their distance learning offerings to avoid the burdensome compliance costs.

"We should encourage distance learning programs, not create federal rules and regulations that will make it harder for students to use them," Nelson said in a statement.

Nelson and Burr's bill is a companion to a piece of House legislation that cleared the Committee on Education and the Workforce in June, sending the measure on to the full chamber. Both bills would roll back the new program integrity regulations and establish a permanent embargo against defining a credit hour at the federal level.

DoE taking aim at nontraditional programs

The regulations stem from an initiative the Department of Education undertook to set baseline quality standards for nontraditional college and university programs under its authority in the Higher Education Act of 1965, releasing a summary of the final regulations in October. The program integrity rules came in a complex bundle of regulations that included the controversial "gainful employment" standard that set benchmarks that for-profit, career colleges and universities must meet to qualify for federal student aid.

But the final gainful employment rules disappointed many critics of the for-profit education industry, who said they didn't go far enough. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), whose staff has been investigating the practices of the industry for more than a year, has said he will work to develop legislation to strengthen the rules intended to ensure that career-oriented colleges provide students with sufficient training to land a job in their field of study. Harkin chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has held several hearings where witnesses have detailed instances when for-profit schools failed to deliver the education and training they advertised, leaving students saddled with dim job prospects and piles of federal debt that cannot be forgiven through bankruptcy proceedings.

But the program integrity measures, though nominally intended to impose some continuity across the heterogeneous ecosystem of online universities, would have the perverse effect of curbing distance learning at a time when enrollments in those programs are soaring and traditional public and nonprofit schools are expanding their online offerings both to reach new students and trim costs, critics have charged. And federal authorities have been actively pursuing policies that seek to bolster online learning. The Federal Communications Commission, for instance, consulted with officials at the Education Department as it was developing a nationwide plan to expand the availability and adoption of broadband service, touting the transformative potential of the technology to create new opportunities for students at all levels.

The program integrity rules sparked opposition from a laundry list of postsecondary education groups and accreditation organizations, who have been pressing members of Congress to join the repeal effort. Groups, such as the American Council on Education, American Library Association and the American Psychological Association in June sent a joint letter to Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training and author of the original repeal legislation, praising her efforts to overturn what they described as "highly problematic and proscriptive regulations."

"We support efforts aimed at curbing abuse and bringing greater integrity to the federal student aid programs," the groups wrote. "However, given the almost total lack of evidence of a problem in the context of credit hour or state authorization, we see no basis for two regulations that so fundamentally alter the relationships between the federal government, states, accreditors and institutions. Ultimately, we believe these regulations invite inappropriate federal interference in campus-based decisions and will limit student access to high-quality education opportunities."

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