Relief and Confusion Mingle as State-Authorization Rules Are Delayed

May 20, 2013

[Updated (5/20/2013, 5:54 p.m.) with comment from the Education Department.]

The U.S. Department of Education will delay the deadline for compliance with rules requiring colleges to be properly authorized by state governments. That's a good thing, said some higher-education leaders on Monday, because many states and colleges have little idea of what the Education Department expects them to do.

The rules set minimum standards for states to regulate colleges with campuses within their borders, including a process to handle complaints about higher education and a licensing process for colleges that are not established "by name" in the laws or constitution of a state.

Those parts of the rules were set to go into effect in July, but the department announced last week that it would give states until July 2014 to meet the standards. Institutions in states that do not meet the requirements could lose their eligibility to receive federal student aid.

Two years ago a federal judge struck down a portion of the rules that would have required providers of online education to be authorized in every state in which they operate, but the remaining mandates have many college leaders scratching their heads. (In the meantime, the department has said it will renew efforts to issue rules that will pass legal muster.)

The Education Department released some information on the rules in October 2010, but "since that time, I'm aware of precious little documentation on the issue," said Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the Wiche Cooperative for Educational Technologies. (The cooperative, known as WCET, is a membership organization that promotes online education in partnership with the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.) "There may have been some that I missed, but then so did everyone," Mr. Poulin said.

And a "Dear Colleague" letter from the Education Department in January "did more to confuse than enlighten," Mr. Poulin said.

While states have been moving forward on their own tighter regulation of colleges, both within and outside of their borders, many colleges that may be affected by the federal rules remain uncertain whether they are at risk of not complying with them. Although the federal regulations apply to state policies, the penalty for noncompliance would fall primarily on students at private colleges, both nonprofit and proprietary, who would no longer be eligible for federal financial aid.

"It's a good thing to postpone this and regroup," said Paul M. Hankins, president of the Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Although Mr. Hankins said he believes his state and the colleges of his association meet the federal requirements, he said quite a bit of uncertainty continued about how the rules would be interpreted by the department.

An example of that confusion played out earlier this year, when the Education Department sent letters to several colleges in Florida warning them that their state approval did not comply with the federal regulation because the colleges were using their accreditation status as a means of being exempted from state-licensing procedures.

The department eventually resolved that dispute in April, deciding that accreditation did not represent a waiver from the state's other licensing requirements.

"The current extension is very welcome," Mr. Poulin said, "but I hope that is followed with clear guidance on what exactly is expected of the states."

In a written statement released late Monday, the department said: "While every state is different, the department has worked with those that have sought our guidance on how best to comply with the amended regulations, and we will continue to work with both institutions and states on this issue in the coming year."