Obama Administration Releases Final State Authorization Rules for Distance Ed

The U.S. Department of Education on Friday released final rules that seek to improve oversight of colleges that offer distance education programs to students in other states.

The regulation, scheduled to take effect July 1, 2018, requires that institutions be authorized to operate in each state where their students reside. However, the rule does recognize state authorization reciprocity agreements, making it easier for colleges that operate online programs across multiple states to satisfy the regulatory requirements in various jurisdictions.

The final rule includes a change, though, stipulating that reciprocity agreements may not ban a state from enforcing its own laws. The updated language is meant to clarify a previously ambiguous reference to "consumer protection laws," a spokesperson for the Education Department told Inside Higher Ed.

"These reciprocity agreements should not supersede any state's laws or regulations, including those specifically related to the postsecondary sector," the spokesperson said in an email. "Member states of reciprocity agreements will need to address any conflicts that arise prior to admitting any state into the reciprocity agreement, and ensuring that states make any necessary changes to their laws before entry. Also, reciprocity agreements would not be forced to accept any state with conflicting statutes or regulations."

The release of the final regulation marks the end of a rulemaking process that lasted for most of the Obama administration. The Education Department first regulated on state authorization of both physical locations and distance education in October 2010. The rules derived from concerns that states were not doing enough to oversee colleges authorized to operate in their states and sought to rein in fraud and abuse by colleges, "for-profit schools, in particular," participating in student aid programs.

In 2011, a federal court invalidated the rule requiring colleges offering online programs to students in other states to seek approval from each of those states. A year later, the department announced that it would not enforce that particular piece of the regulation. The other portions of the 2010 state authorization rule relating to physical locations were implemented last year.

The department released a new draft rule for distance education programs in July. AACRAO submitted comments on the proposed new regulations.

It is unclear whether the incoming Trump administration will allow the rule to go into effect, though, Inside Higher Ed reported. The president-elect signaled during the campaign his intent to remove regulations broadly.

U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), incoming chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, specifically mentioned the state authorization rule as one of the "onerous rules and regulations" that the GOP is looking to "deal with" as part of its approach to higher education. Foxx previously introduced several bills that aimed to block or repeal that and other rules issued by the Education Department.


Related Links

U.S. Department of Education Press Release


Inside Higher Ed