Policy & Progress

It’s time for higher education regulations to move into the 21st century.
Policy & Progress

THREE U.S.-BASED organizations that advocate for the effective use of technology in higher education recently issued four policy briefs related to U.S. federal regulations. The briefs were produced by the UPCEA, based in Washington, D.C.; the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), based in Newburyport, Massachusetts; and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), based in Boulder, Colorado.

The UPCEA, OLC, and WCET issued the briefs out of concern that current government policy regulating higher education serves a student population “that has not existed for more than 50 years,” according to a statement. The briefs are an effort “to change the conversation around these out-of-date regulations,” which leaders from all three organizations believe could stifle the progress of students enrolled in online programs.

The reports highlight ways that academic institutions can run afoul of policies that do not reflect 21st-century educational practices. For example, the authors of “Regular and Substantive Interaction: Backgrounds, Concerns, and Guiding Principles” point to the example of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) audited the institution and determined that students enrolled in its online program did not engage in sufficient “regular and substantive interaction.” The DOE based its determination on the fact that students in the competency-based program did not uniformly engage with faculty or each other, but instead completed assignments at their own pace and used online resources and tutoring at their own discretion.

Confusion surrounding this case spurred the DOE to audit other competency- based programs such as those delivered by Western Governors University. It also called for other higher education institutions and accrediting bodies, such as the Higher Education Commission, to more clearly define what constitutes regular and substantive interaction where competency-based programs are concerned.

The brief on “State Authorization Across State Borders” highlights difficulties that arise when students enroll in online programs delivered by institutions outside their home states. It points to the hypothetical example of a student from Maryland who enrolls in an Arizona university’s online doctoral program in physical therapy. The university in Arizona “would have to evaluate the regulations of the state licensing board in Maryland in order to make sure the student would be eligible to sit for a licensing exam in Maryland” and practice in her home state after she graduates.

Institutions then would have to multiply that effort across all of their degree programs to evaluate the varying regulations of all states where their online students reside, a task requiring intensive time and resources. And if they fail to ensure their programs comply with a state’s regulations? Students from that state could be barred from attaining state licensure at all.

Examples such as these underscore the need for academic leaders to push policymakers to update higher education regulations, says Kathleen Ives, the OLC’s executive director and CEO. “Addressing the needs of the 21st-century learner includes creating an environment that supports effective use of digital and online learning,” she emphasizes. “Our hope is that our input and our insights are thoughtfully considered as policymakers contemplate the necessary changes for realigning policy with the needs of modern higher education.”

The three organizations have released two additional briefs, including “Competency- Based Education, Direct Assessment, and Financial Aid” and “Financial Aid and the 21st-Century Learner: Background, Concerns, and Guiding Principles.” Access all four papers here.