New Distance Learning Regulations will be published in the Federal Register soon which make some significant changes to earlier and longstanding guidance on the subject.

These new regulations will take effect on July 1, 2021 but ED has earmarked them for early implementation once the rules are published officially in the Federal Register. Some institutions may want to do just that, especially since COVID-19 has made online and distance education predominant methods of education delivery. For others, there actually some pretty good incentives to early adopt. Look at these highlights from ED’s summary of the Distance Education and Innovation Rules:

  • Provide flexibility to distance education, competency-based education (CBE), and other types of educational programs that emphasize demonstration of learning rather than seat time when measuring student outcomes.
  • Remove confusion about the distinction between distance education and correspondence courses and more clearly define the requirements of “regular and substantive interaction” between students and faculty and the permissibility of engaging instructional teams in the delivery of education through distance learning. In addition, given the increasing reliance on mixed-modalities among different courses in a student’s program, the new regulations clarify that, when calculating the number of correspondence students, a student is considered “enrolled in a correspondence course” if correspondence courses constitute 50 percent or more of the courses in which the student enrolled during an award year.
  • Allow institutions to respond to students’ educational needs and potentially shorten the time to degree completion and the cost of completing a credential through direct assessment programs by:


  • Clarifying the requirements for direct assessment programs, including how to determine equivalent credit hours and how to distribute aid to simplify administration, reduce confusion, and protect taxpayers.
  • Limiting the requirement for institutions with strong track records to obtain approval from the Secretary for only the first direct assessment program offered by the school at a given credential level. Institutions with proven track records will still be overseen by accreditors, but the additional Department approval for subsequent programs would be removed.
  • Requiring institutions to report to the Secretary when adding a second or subsequent direct assessment program or establishing a written arrangement for an institution or organization that is not eligible to participate in the Title IV, HEA program to provide more than 25 percent, but no more than 50 percent, of a program. This requirement balances necessary transparency with greater flexibility for institutions to create partnerships, leading to jobs for students.
  • Recognizing the value of “subscription-based programs,” and simplifying rules regarding the disbursement of title IV funding to students enrolled in these programs, which allow students to work at their own pace and complete their programs more quickly while paying a flat fee, rather than per credit tuition. The rule would create a new, student centric system for disbursing title IV, HEA assistance to students in subscription-based programs.


  • Require prompt action by the Department on applications by institutions to the Secretary seeking certification or recertification to participate as an eligible institution in the HEA, title IV program. In the past, such applications have been stalled for months or even years.


  • Clarify that the Secretary may deny an institution’s application for certification or recertification to participate in the title IV, HEA programs if an institution is not financially responsible or does not submit its audits in a timely manner.


  • Add a definition of “juvenile justice facility” to ensure that students incarcerated in a juvenile justice facility continue their eligibility for Pell Grants.


  • Allow students enrolled in Title IV, HEA-eligible foreign institutions to complete up to 25 percent of their programs at an eligible institution in the United States. This provision is particularly important for students temporarily unable to attend courses abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for students who wish to accelerate degree completion by taking classes while in the U.S. during school breaks, and enabling students who need to return to the U.S. for other reasons to remain enrolled in postsecondary education and making progress toward credential completion.


  • Encourages employer participation in developing educational programs by clarifying that institutions may modify their curricula based on industry advisory board recommendations without relying on a traditional faculty-led decision-making process.


  • Simplifies clock-to-credit hour conversions and clarifies that homework time included in the credit hour definition do not translate to clock hours, including for the purpose of determining whether a program meets the Department’s requirements regarding maximum program length.


  • Encourages institutions to give students equal credit for time spent preparing for and participating in lecture and laboratory courses. For decades students have received less credit for completing laboratory courses than lecture or other courses.


  • Clarify, in consideration of the challenges to institutions posed by State’s varying minimum program length standards for occupational licensing requirements that an institution may demonstrate for purposes of participating in title IV, HEA programs, a reasonable relationship between the length of a program if the number of clock hours does not exceed either 150 percent of the minimum requirement to work in the State in which the institution is located or 100 percent of the minimum hours in an adjacent State.


  • Provide that the Secretary will rely on the accrediting agency or State authorizing agency to evaluate an institution’s appeal of a final audit or program review determination by the Department that includes a finding about the institution’s classification of a course or program as distance education or the institution’s assignment of credit hours.


  • Encourage closing institutions to offer quality teach-outs by permitting the application of sanctions to individuals or institutions affiliated with other institutions that closed without executing a viable teach-out plan or agreement.
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