On March 15, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education published additional guidance for postsecondary institutions extending and clarifying regulatory flexibilities contained in the CARES Act and related to COVID-19.
Key components of the guidance include:
- Extension of the time frame for authorization by the Department of temporary distance education approval for previously on-ground programs to include payment periods that overlap March 5, 2020, or that begin on or between March 5, 2020, and December 31, 2020.
- Waiver of the Department’s requirement that an institution offering at least 50% of a program by distance education to be accredited for distance education by an accrediting agency that has distance education in the scope of its recognition. The waiver is effective for payment periods that begin on or before December 31, 2020.
- Six month extension of the Title IV financial statement and compliance audit deadlines.
The guidance also includes important new information concerning:
- Accreditation site visit extension flexibilities and requirements.
- Extension by six months of the “materially complete application” requirements following a Title IV change of ownership and control to allow additional time for the institution to remain TItle IV certified while secure state and accreditor approvals as well as the audited same day balance sheet.
- Waiver of MCAT score requirement for foreign graduate medical school admissions for students admitted to medical school during an admissions year in which the MCAT was unavailable to students for some period of time during that year due to COVID-19 related interruptions.
- Additional flexibilities concerning verification of high school (or equivalent) completion status that applies until December 31, 2020, for both the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 award years.
- Treatment of the PPP loan forgiveness amount in calculating the institution’s composite score.
- Treatment of student workers when determining the number of employees for PPP loan eligibility.
- Tax treatment of HEERF and emergency financial aid grants to students.
- Clarifications regarding Campus-Based Waivers/Reallocation and FSEOG Emergency Aid Grants.
- Clarifications regarding Leaves of Absence (LOA) flexibilities.
- Return of Title IV Funds (R2T4) guidance and processing detail.
- Clarifications regarding Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) flexibilities.
- Clarifications regarding Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant Program flexibilities.
Institutions should carefully analyze the full guidance document and related Q&A , available here: https://ifap.ed.gov/electronic-announcements/051520UPDATEDGuidanceInterruptStudyRelCOVID19May2020
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently issued a FAQ in its continuing effort to address civil rights issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new guidance focused on disability accommodations, Title IX, and harassment issues.
The overall message was to again remind postsecondary institutions to “stay the course” with their civil rights obligations. Institutions must continue to engage in the interactive process and provide disability accommodations that do not fundamentally alter the academic program and/or are undue burdens. Institutions must also continue to receive, investigate, and resolve harassment complaints. Institutions should adapt their policies to the new distance learning environment, and, if they do, they must inform students, faculty, and staff of any changes.
OCR also offered practical advice for how institutions can meet their civil rights obligations (and take advantage of new technology in doing so): Continue reading OCR Provides Practical Pointers for Postsecondary Institutions to Meet Civil Rights Obligations In Distance Learning Environments
On May 6, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education issued the Final Rule on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) regulations. These are the first comprehensive regulations issued under Title IX since 1975.
The Final Rule goes into effect on Friday, August 14, 2020. Its provisions will significantly impact K-12 school districts, colleges, and universities. The changes include: a definition for sexual harassment, requirement for publication of Title IX materials, triggers for an institution’s legal obligation to respond and investigate, and a requirement that institutions conduct courtroom-like hearings. Continue reading Title IX Final Rule
On April 21, 2020, the Department made available the institutional portion of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) under Section 18004(a)(1) and 18004(c) of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
By statute, the institutional HEERF funds are to be used to cover any costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus so long as such costs do not include payment to contractors for the provision of pre-enrollment recruitment activities, including marketing and advertising; endowments; or capital outlays associated with facilities related to athletics, sectarian instruction, or religious worship.
Through an associated FAQ, the Department has provided further guidance and limitations on use of the institutional HEERF funds:
- An institution must enter into the Funding Certification and Agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to receive and distribute Emergency Financial Aid Grants to Students in order to be eligible to receive the institutional HEERF portion of the funds. In other words, institutions cannot select only to receive the institutional, but not student, portion of the HEERF funds provided by Congress.
- Institutions that have provided refunds to students for room and board, tuition, and other fees (such as activities fees) may use the institutional HEERF funds to reimburse themselves, so long as the institution can demonstrate that such costs were incurred as a result of significant changes to the delivery of instruction, including interruptions in instruction, due to coronavirus. Institutions will need to be able to document how those reimbursements are related to the COVID-19 interruption.
- Institutions may reimburse themselves for refunds previously made to students on or after March 13, 2020, but only if they can demonstrate that such refunds were necessitated by significant changes to the delivery of instruction, including interruptions in instruction, due to coronavirus.
- Institutions may use institutional HEERF funds for costs incurred by the institution to purchase laptops, hotspots, or other IT equipment and software necessary to enable students to participate in distance learning as a result of the coronavirus interruption.
- Institutions that purchased computers or other equipment to donate or provide to students on or after March 13, 2020 may reimburse themselves for those costs, again if tied to need arising from the coronavirus interruption.
- The institutional HEERF funds can be used to make additional emergency financial aid grants to students (to supplement the student HEERF funds), provided that such grants are for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus (including eligible expenses under a student’s cost of attendance, such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care). Only students who are or could be eligible to participate in programs under Section 484 in Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), may receive emergency financial aid grants.
- At institutions that provide both online and ground-based education, students who were enrolled exclusively in online programs on March 13, 2020 are not eligible for emergency financial aid grants, as the Department’s position is that students who were enrolled exclusively in online programs would not have expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus. Fully 100% online institutions were already ineligible for HEERF funding.
- Institutional HEERF funds may be used to award scholarships or to provide payment for future academic terms only if the institution can demonstrate that such grants are needed for expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to coronavirus. If provided to students in the form of emergency financial aid, such uses are allowable.
- Institutional HEERF funds can be used to pay a per-student fee to a third-party service provider, including an Online Program Manager (OPM), for each additional student using the distance learning platform, learning management system, online resources, or other support services; however, institutions may not use institutional HEERF funds to pay third-party recruiters or OPMs for recruiting or enrolling new students at the institution.
- The Funding and Certification Agreement that institutions must sign also makes clear that institutional HEERF funds cannot be used for: senior administrator and/or executive salaries, benefits, bonuses, contracts, incentives; stock buybacks, shareholder dividends, capital distributions, and stock options; and any other cash or other benefit for a senior administrator or executive.
More information on CARES Act grant resources and guidance can be found on the Office of Postsecondary Education’s webpage: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/caresact.html
On April 3, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights continued its guidance on how institutions can implement distance learning while complying with federal civil rights laws. This guidance is timely because, as we all know, distance learning due to COVID-19 is redefining how most educational institutions operate. When all levels of academic institutions had to close their doors due to stay-at-home orders, many of them opened the proverbial window by turning to online education. Despite its increasing popularity over the past decade or so, distance learning remains an emerging and potentially scary (as well as exciting) landscape for many institutions as they navigate purchasing/installing new technology, implementing new methods of teaching, and ensuring connectivity with students. OCR’s guidance provides a roadmap to this new territory.
In further response to some institutions declining to use distance learning at all because they were unsure of being able to provide a free and appropriate public education (K-12) or appropriate accommodations (postsecondary) to students with disabilities, OCR reiterated: Continue reading OCR Guidance on Disability Rights and Distance Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic
On April 9, 2020, the Secretary of Education announced the availability of more than $6 billion for immediate distributed to colleges and universities to provide direct emergency cash grants to college students through the authority of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act provides nearly $14 billion to support postsecondary education students and institutions. Colleges and universities are required to utilize the $6.28 billion made available today to provide cash grants to students for expenses related to disruptions to their educations due to the COVID-19 outbreak, including things like course materials and technology as well as food, housing, health care, and childcare. In order to access the funds, the Department must receive a signed certification from the higher education institution affirming they will distribute the funds in accordance with applicable law. The college or university will then determine which students will receive the cash grants.
School allocations are set by formula prescribed in the CARES Act that is weighted significantly by the number of full-time students who are Pell-eligible but also takes into consideration the total population of the school and the number of students who were not enrolled full-time online before the coronavirus outbreak. The Department is utilizing the most recent data available from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and Federal Student Aid (FSA) for this calculation.
Institutions will receive allocations and guidance for the institutional share of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund in the coming weeks. Institutions will be able to use these funds to cover costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus.
Additional information on institution-level funding for students, including data tables, can be found here. The Secretary’s letter to college and university presidents with additional information on this funding allocation can be found here.
On April 8, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education published a Q&A that answers questions related to use of Department grant funds during the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) with respect to compensation, travel, and conference costs that are otherwise allowable costs under applicable program statutes and regulations. factsheet-fiscal-questions
On April 1, the U.S. Department of Education (“USDE”) published a long-awaited Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for Distance Education and Innovation in the Federal Register. The proposed regulations are the final part of the consensus negotiated rulemaking that occurred in 2019. This regulation comes at an important time as institutions across the country are transitioning to varying forms of distance education due to COVID-19, albeit temporary or longer term. The NPRM represents the next step in the Department’s agenda to modernize its distance education regulations to promote innovation and reflect technological advancements, while protecting program quality. One key component of the NPRM is the new proposed definition of “regular” and “substantive” interaction between instructors and students for Title IV eligibility purposes. In the past, Title IV institutions have been assessed multi-million dollar fines for violating substantive and regular interaction requirements that were not well-defined in regulation. The NPRM also proposes revised credit and clock hour definitions directly addressing distance education and makes changes to recognize subscription based delivery of online education.
If your institution offers distance education and/or direct assessment programs, you should strongly consider analyzing and commenting on the proposed regulations. The Department has indicated that the Final Rule will be published by November 1, 2020, to allow an effective date of July 1, 2021. Comments are due by May 4, 2020 and must be submitted through the Federal eRulemaking Portal or via postal mail, commercial delivery, or hand delivery. The Department will not accept comments submitted by fax or by email or those submitted after the comment period.
Summary of the Major Provisions
As provided in the NPRM, the proposed regulations would:
- Clarify that when calculating the number of correspondence students, a student is considered ‘‘enrolled in a correspondence course’’ if correspondence courses constitute 50 percent or more of the courses in which the student enrolled during an award year;
- Limit the requirement for the Secretary’s approval to an institution’s first direct assessment program at each credential level;
- Require institutions to report to the Secretary when they add a second or subsequent direct assessment program or establish a written arrangement for an ineligible institution or organization to provide more than 25 percent, but no more than 50 percent, of a program;
- Require prompt action by the Department on any applications submitted by an institution to the Secretary seeking a determination that it qualifies as an eligible institution and any reapplications for a determination that the institution continues to meet the requirements to be an eligible institution for HEA programs;
- Allow students enrolled in eligible foreign institutions to complete up to 25 percent of an eligible program at an eligible institution in the United States; and clarify that, notwithstanding this provision, an eligible foreign institution may permit a Direct Loan borrower to perform research in the United States for not more than one academic year if the research is conducted during the dissertation phase of a doctoral program;
- Clarify the conditions under which a participating foreign institution may enter into a written arrangement with an ineligible entity;
- Provide flexibility to institutions to modify their curriculum at the recommendations of industry advisory boards and without relying on a traditional faculty-led decision-making process;
- Provide flexibility to institutions when conducting clock-to-credit hour conversions to eliminate confusion about the inclusion of homework time in the clock-hour determination;
- Clarify the eligibility requirements for a direct assessment program;
- Clarify, in consideration of the challenges to institutions posed by minimum program length standards associated with occupational licensing requirements, which vary from State to State, that an institution may demonstrate a reasonable relationship between the length of a program, as defined in 20 U.S.C. 1001(b)(1), and the entry-level requirements of the occupation for which that program prepares students;
- Clarify that a student is not considered to have withdrawn for purposes of determining the amount of title IV grant or loan assistance that the student earned if the student completes all the requirements for graduation for a non-term program or a subscription based program, if the student completes one or more modules that comprise 50 percent or more of the number of days in the payment period, or if the institution obtains written confirmation that the student will resume attendance in a subscription-based or non-term program;
- Clarify satisfactory academic progress requirements for non-term credit or clock programs, term-based programs that are not a subscription based program, and subscription-based programs;
- Remove provisions pertaining to the use and calculation of the Net Present Value of institutional loans for the calculation of the 90/10 ratio for for-profit IHEs, because the provisions are no longer applicable;
- Clarify that the Secretary will rely on the requirements established by an institution’s accrediting agency or State authorizing agency to evaluate an institution’s appeal of a final audit or program review determination that includes a finding about the institution’s classification of a course or program as distance education, or the institution’s assignment of credit hours;
- Clarify that the Secretary may deny an institution’s application for certification or recertification to participate in the title IV, HEA programs if an institution is not financially responsible or does not submit its audits in a timely manner; and
- Clarify that an institution is not financially responsible if a person who exercises substantial ownership or control over an institution also exercised substantial ownership or control over another institution that closed without executing a viable teach-out plan or agreement.
Late on Friday, April 3, the Department posted updated guidance for institutions that recognizes the regulatory flexibilities authorized by Congress in the CARES Act, but also addresses other areas including Clery Act, Distance Education, Foreign Schools and FERPA, among other issues relevant to the COVID-19 interruption. The guidance is effective through June 30, 2020 unless otherwise extended by the Department. The Higher Education Relief Fund portion of CARES ACT is not addressed and will be the subject of future guidance.
– April 03, 2020
(OPE Announcements) Subject: UPDATED Guidance for interruptions of study related to Coronavirus (COVID-19)
The CARES Act appropriates $30.75 billion for an Education Stabilization Fund available through September 30, 2021, to assist governors and postsecondary institutions with preventing, preparing for and responding to COVID-19. The Act also includes important student relief and temporary regulatory flexibilities.
For more information, please visit the Duane Morris website.