Higher Education

DeVos Announces More Support for College Online Learning

By Cait Etherington
January 12, 2019

Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, has made one thing clear from the beginning of her tenure: She’s a huge supporter of college online learning. This week she continued to follow through on her promise to support the cause. In an announcement on January 7, DeVos said she would change regulations determining what counts as a course at the postsecondary level and as a result while extending federal funds to a wider range of postsecondary institutions and organizations. The announcement is good news for certain institutions that have clashed with federal regulators in the past over what counts as a course, but not everyone is happy about DeVos’s latest announcements.

DeVos’s Proposed Changes

DeVos’s key change inolves the criteria used to determine what types of courses and programs are worthy of federal loans and grants. In essence, DeVos wants to offer accrediting agencies more leeway in approving programs that don’t fit traditional educational models, and this includes many college online learning programs.

Online courses and programs under current federal regulations often don’t qualify for Title IV funding. The reason is simple: For a course to qualify, it needs to meet a certain number of instructor-student contact hours. In the case of some online courses, students may spend less time engaging with qualified instructors. DeVos’s proposal would essentially change what counts as a “qualifiable” course or program.

Under the proposal, the Education Department will grant accreditors considerable more authority in defining what counts as a distance or correspondence course and give them more say in determining how credit hours are determined. In the process, Obama-era rules would essentially be overridden. Under Obama, strict guidelines were put in place to determine what counts as one hour of classroom instruction or faculty instruction.

According to the Washington Post, two other changes are also being proposed. First, accreditors will gain the right to determine who qualifies as an instructor in a college-level course without the Education Department’s approval. Second, new accrediting agencies will no longer need two years of experience to serve as gatekeepers in the federal financial aid program. The latter of these two rules may prove especially important in the for-profit coding schools that have already set up their own accountability task force. But as already noted, for-profit schools aren’t the only institutions that have a lot to gain from DeVos’s current proposals.

College Online Learning Likely to Receive Federal Funding Boost

The main beneficiaries of DeVos’ new federal guidelines will likely be online universities. Under the former administration, many for-profit primarily online universities were found to insufficiently educate their learners and prepare them for a career following graduation.

As late as September 2018, student loan default rates among graduates of for-profit institutions continued to rise.

Other institutions have faced similar headwinds. As previously reported on eLearning Insidein September 2017, Western Governors University was warned that they may owe more than $700 million to the federal government. The fine wasn’t levied but simply recommended following an audit report that found the school was offering what amounts to a correspondence course according to the Higher Education Act. Fortunately, for Western Governors University, the fine was actually a hangover from the previous administration’s efforts to crack down on the misuse of federal funds. As a result, Western Governors University’s grievances have been heard by the government.

While Western Governors University’s dispute is still being negotiated, if DeVos is able to fully implement her recent proposals, it seems likely that moving forward, Western Governors University and other online providers will be less likely to face similar charges.

In fact, if the proposals are all approved, how colleges and university define what counts as a course or program and even who counts as a qualified instructor will undergo a radical revision. But such changes are unlikely to be approved without some controversy. It seems likely, for example, that more traditional postsecondary institutions and accrediting bodies will push back, arguing that loosening the criteria used to determine what counts as a course, program, or qualified instructor threatens to erode educational standards.

Photo by Maya Maceka on Unsplash.