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Department of Education Updates to Online Programs

Policy and Advocacy Public Policy Division
September 21, 2020 James Tyger University of Florida

In April 2020, the Department of Education proposed updates to ease requirements for online programs. The new rules were issued in late August and address the eligibility sections of the Institutional Eligibility regulations under the Higher Education Act of 1965 related to distance education and innovation.  

Per the Department of Education’s (ED) Press Office, “[t]hese regulations build upon Secretary DeVos’ call for institutions, educators, and policy makers to ‘rethink higher education’ and find new ways to expand educational opportunity, demonstrate the value of a postsecondary credential and lifelong learning, and reduce costs for students and schools.”

The ED Summary indicates the regulations:

  • Emphasize demonstrated learning over seat time.

  • Remove confusion over whether a course is eligible for Title IV aid by defining "regular and substantive" interaction between students and instructors.

  • Clarify and simplify the requirements for direct assessment programs, including how to determine equivalent credit hours.

  • Add a definition of "juvenile justice facility" to ensure that incarcerated students remain Pell eligible.

  • Allow students enrolled in Title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA)-eligible foreign institutions to complete up to 25% 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.

  • Encourage employer participation in developing educational programs.

  • 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 to participate, or continue to participate, as an eligible institution in the HEA, Title IV program. In the past, these applications have been stalled for months or even years.

  • Allow clock hour programs, which often lead to state licensed occupations, to utilize innovative learning models.

The updated rules reflect multiple significant policy updates for higher education institutions. For example, providing flexibility for programs that highlight demonstration of learning rather than seat time when measuring student outcomes.  The rules also engage employers by encouraging employer participation in developing educational programs and clarifying how institutions can engage industry advisory board recommendations without relying on a traditional faculty-led decision-making process. Additionally, support for asynchronous learning (learning that happens on your schedule) in clock-hour programs was included in the final rule, as long as the licensing bodies permit its use.  This update is particularly relevant as institutions navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.  This update would allow accrediting agencies and licensing boards to reconsider restrictions on asynchronous distance learning for programs that are typically hands-on.   

The regulations will take effect July 1, 2021, but the Department of Education notes that institutions have the ability to voluntarily utilize the new “flexibilities” as soon as the regulation is published in the Federal Register.