U.S. plans 2-year delay in rule governing state approval of online programs

Inside Higher Ed

2-Year Delay for State Authorization Rule

U.S. (again) pushes back controversial regulation requiring online programs to gain approval from states in which they operate, this time to 2020.

May 25, 2018

The U.S. Education Department formally announced in today’s Federal Register what it had implied two weeks ago: that it would delay for two more years implementation of its controversial regulations requiring online programs to show that they are approved to operate in every state where they enroll students.

If the government actually publishes the regulations in July 2020, the new target date, the saga of the “state authorization” rules, as they are known, will have lasted a full 10 years.

The Obama administration drafted them as part of a set of “program integrity” rules that included regulations governing gainful employment and the credit hour, and the state authorization rules were immediately controversial.

A federal court struck down the portion of them pertaining to distance education in 2011, prompting the government to go back to the drawing board (and the negotiating table) in 2014 for another round of deliberations to try to craft a rule more acceptable to colleges and state regulators alike.

The Education Department published a new, final version of the regulation in December as the Obama administration was leaving town, with an effective date of July 1, 2018.

In the intervening months, though, the Trump administration has taken a much more skeptical stance on many higher education regulations, identifying state authorization as one target. During this period, higher education leaders and state officials have banded together to create a reciprocity agreement for state approvals that they assert provides many of the consumer protections the Obama administration argued required the federal rule.

Colleges and universities and their lobbying groups, meanwhile, have continued to question the wisdom of the rules, and in its notice announcing the delay, the Education Department cited letters from the American Council on Education and a coalition of groups that work on distance education issues seeking a series of clarifications to the guidance that department officials say they believe cannot be adequately addressed without a new round of negotiated rulemaking, which the department already plans.

“We believe that delaying the final regulations would benefit students and that many students will still receive sufficient disclosures regarding distance education programs during the period of the delay due to steps institutions have already taken in this area,” the department’s Federal Register notice said.