There has long been a consumer protection gap when students enroll online—or in the old-fashioned version, through a correspondence course—in a school that is physically located in a different state. Six years ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s set off a firestorm when a regulation that, in draft form, had not touched the online issues, suddenly did. Now, after much more consultation on the issue, the agency has put together a draft revised approach. The Department of Education’s proposed rule would, for the first time, establish minimum expectations for state oversight for the millions of postsecondary students engaged in online learning through an institution based outside of the state in which students lives.
Traditional higher education regulation is built upon the oversight role states play in protecting students and taxpayers from bad practices, but online learning inspires a host of new questions because it can be delivered anywhere. Are states allowed to cede some of their oversight authority to other states in order to increase efficiency? When a student or advocate has concerns about the education provided by a particular institution, should she appeal to the state in which the school is based or the state in which the student resides? Can the state ignore complaints from students who are not their residents? What information must schools disclose to online students?
In comments submitted today, Century Foundation senior fellow Robert Shireman and I joined twenty-five leading consumer protection and legal aid organizations to suggest adjustments to improve an already strong proposal from the Department of Education that has been drafted with these questions in mind. Our approach prioritizes two elements: ensuring that students have access to the protections and resources of their home state when they enroll in interstate online learning, and providing students with easily accessible, easily understandable information so that they can decide what course of study is best for them.
We support the Department of Education’s efforts to recognize reciprocity—multi-state agreements regarding online education—and to ensure that students have access to complaint procedures in their home states. At the same time, we recommend more clearly outlining the applicability of state law and enforcement authority to ensure that all students on federal aid are subject to robust state oversight, regardless of where they live. This detail is particularly important because, under a state authorization reciprocity agreement in which schools must no longer earn the ability to operate state-by-state, online institutions could curry favor with home state regulators, while operating nationwide in ways that may not serve out-of-state consumers well. As such, it is important to ensure that all states have the ability to protect their residents even within such an agreement and keep a lookout for predatory behavior by schools.
To prevent these problems, our comments include language clarifying that all states must have processes to receive complaints regarding out-of-state online institution and the ability to take action based on these complaints that could ultimately lead to denying an institution’s authority to enroll residents of that state. In addition, relevant reciprocity agreements must include a system that allows states to withdraw the approval of an out-of-state institution on a one-by-one basis to ensure that all participating institution serve the interests of students and taxpayers. These agreements must also protect a state’s ability to enter into agreements that recognize that for-profit ownership presents particular dangers.
The Department of Education should be stricter regarding the enrollment of students in online programs that do not meet the state-specific requirements of the state in which a student lives, protecting students from being caught unaware after they complete a program that they are not able to translate their skills into a job.
We also support the Department of Education’s efforts to improve the transparency of online programming; however, more can be done to enhance the effectiveness of proposed disclosure requirements. Too often, disclosure is not effective because of the method or timing of delivery, the use of jargon or legalistic language, or an overwhelming amount of information. With these limitations in mind, we recommend the Department of Education provide additional guidance regarding the details of the required disclosures, specifically those related to adverse actions by states and accrediting agencies, to improve the efficacy of these provisions. In addition, the Department of Education should be stricter regarding the enrollment of students in online programs that do not meet the state-specific requirements of the state in which a student lives, protecting students from being caught unaware after they complete a program that they are not able to translate their skills into a job.
It is our hope that the Department of Education takes into consideration these suggestions and develops a version of the proposed rules that more fully protects students and taxpayers in this new arena of online, interstate education.