STATE AUTHORIZATION PING PONG NEARS RESOLUTION
As we reported in May, the U.S. Department of Education was ordered by a U.S. District Court in California to implement the 2016 State Authorization Regulations. Although the original effective date of the regulations was July 1, 2018, the Department delayed them until July 1, 2020 and began the process of negotiating and writing new regulations which are still expected to be released later this year. The lawsuit brought by student and consumer advocates and the National Education Association, a teacher’s union, sought to force the Department of Education to implement the 2016 regulations and on May 26, 2019 the courts sided with the NEA. As a result, the court ordered the Department to implement the rules right away.
The 2016 state authorization amendments required institutions to obtain approval from each state in which they enroll students via online, distance education, and/or correspondence programs, or participate in a state authorization reciprocity agreement that includes the states they’re enrolling students in. States were required to have a means for students to lodge complaints and as of last year every state except California (and a few U.S. Territories) have either established a complaint process and process for approving out of state entities or joined a reciprocity agreement like NC-SARA.
Recognizing the effect this would have, the court allowed the Department time to consider how to implement the rules, since many schools and colleges have been enrolling Californians with the understanding that the State Authorization regulations had been delayed. On July 22, 2019 the Department released an electronic announcement explaining that the State Authorization rules were put into effect retroactively on May 26, 2016, causing a scramble in the distance education world. Reports of as many as 80,000 to more than 100,000 students enrolled in distance education programs all around the country were suddenly in jeopardy of losing access to their federal financial aid. As an attachment to the electronic announcement the Department provided some information about states’ complaint processes and pointed out that California didn’t have one for its private non-profit and public institutions. California’s Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education handles complaints for out-of-state for-profit institutions.
California acted quickly to establish a complaint process for these schools, and authorized BPPE through the California Department of Consumer Affairs to begin handling complaints beginning on July 29, 2019. In a statement, the DCA said they expect that the ED will find the proposed process satisfactory, so that California is following federal rules, affected colleges can inform their students of the process, and students will not lose Title IV federal financial aid funding.
Although the Department hasn’t historically approved or denied individual state complaint processes, the U.S. Department of Education and California Regulators appear to be coordinating closely to avoid any missteps that could prolong or further deny federal aid to students receiving distance education because their institutions cannot meet the complaint process requirement due to problems with state procedures. The nation’s college students wait for the Department’s decision. Considering the potential to disrupt the education of thousands of online students affected. a conclusion to this issue needs to be carried out swiftly.
According to WCET, 4-6 states and territories may still be out of compliance after noting that some complaint procedures in some states were unclear and may not meet the federal requirements. So far, they have not released the names of the states or territories in question. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also called for NEA to drop its lawsuit which although unlikely to happen could also resolve this issue by allowing the Department to continue their original plan to delay the regulations until such time as new rules are carried out or states comply.