On September 2, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education (“Department”) published a Final Rule, available at https://ifap.ed.gov/federal-registers/FR090220, on distance education and innovation. The regulations are effective July 1, 2021; however, institutions are permitted to voluntarily implement any or all provisions as of September 2, the date of publication of the final rule. The Department states that the rule is intended to “strike a balance” between fostering increased innovation in distance education offerings while protecting students and taxpayers.The rule makes the following regulatory changes:
• Allowing asynchronous delivery of some courses or portions of courses delivered as part of clock hour programs (this significant change was made in response to public comments on the proposed rule);
• Providing flexibility to distance education, competency-based education (CBE), and other types of educational programs that emphasize demonstration of learning rather than seat time when measuring student outcomes;
• Clarifying the distinction between distance education and correspondence courses and more clearly defining the requirements of “regular and substantive interaction” between students and faculty and the permissibility of engaging instructional teams in the delivery of education through distance learning;
• Clarifying the requirements for direct assessment programs, including how to determine equivalent credit hours and how to distribute aid to simplify administration, reduce confusion, and protect taxpayers;
• Limiting the requirement for institutions with strong track records to obtain approval from the Education Secretary for only the first direct assessment program offered by the school at a given credential level;
• Requiring institutions to report to the Education Secretary when adding a second or subsequent direct assessment program or establishing a written arrangement for an institution or organization that is not eligible to participate in the title IV, HEA program to provide more than 25 percent, but no more than 50 percent, of a program;
• Recognizing the value of “subscription-based programs,” and simplifying rules regarding the disbursement of title IV funding to students enrolled in these programs; and
• Requiring prompt action by the Department on applications by institutions to the Education Secretary seeking certification or recertification to participate as an eligible institution in the HEA, title IV program.
The rule also adds a definition of “juvenile justice facility” to ensure that students incarcerated in a juvenile justice facility continue their eligibility for Pell Grants.
Additional regulatory changes include:
• Encouraging employer participation in developing educational programs by clarifying that institutions may modify their curricula based on industry advisory board recommendations without relying on a traditional faculty-led decision-making process;
• Simplifying clock-to-credit hour conversions and clarifying that homework time included in the credit hour definition do not translate to clock hours, including for the purpose of determining whether a program meets the Department’s requirements regarding maximum program length;
• Encouraging institutions to give students equal credit for time spent preparing for and participating in lecture and laboratory courses;
• Clarifying that an institution may demonstrate for purposes of participating in title IV, HEA programs, a reasonable relationship between the length of a program if the number of clock hours does not exceed either 150 percent of the minimum requirement to work in the State in which the institution is located or 100 percent of the minimum hours in an adjacent State;
• Providing that the Education Secretary will rely on the accrediting agency or State authorizing agency to evaluate an institution’s appeal of a final audit or program review determination by the Department 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; and
• Encouraging closing institutions to offer quality teach-outs by permitting the application of sanctions to individuals or institutions affiliated with other institutions that closed without executing a viable teach-out plan or agreement.
The final rule culminated a rulemaking that began nearly two years ago, building on the Trump administration’s Rethink Higher Education agenda that “challenged past practices, assumptions, and expectations about what ‘college’ is, what it should do, and how it should operate.” It remains to be seen whether these regulations would be subject to amendment from a change in Secretary, but we view this set of rules as less controversial than others amended or rescinded by Secretary DeVos (such as Gainful Employment and Borrower Defense to Repayment) and not likely to be a priority for change by a new Administration. Institutions of higher education should familiarize themselves with these rule changes as they develop distance education programs.
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
We reported earlier this week on the U.S. Department of Education’s July 22, 2019, announcement, which clarified that California students attending online programs offered by out-of-state nonprofit and public institutions are not currently eligible for Title IV Federal Student Aid because of lack of a student complaint process. This issue is not limited to California students and could similarly impact students in many states across the country attending online programs offered by all California colleges and universities, including nonprofit, public and for-profit schools. California-based colleges and universities offering online programs in other states must seek state-by-state authorization or exemption because California does not participate in SARA (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement). Many of these states do not provide a complaint process for exempt institutions.
View the full Alert on the Duane Morris LLP website.
The U.S. Department of Education on July 22, 2019, clarified that the 2016 State Authorization Rule, which applies to online educational programs offered across state borders, among other topics, is undoubtedly now in effect. As this Alert explains, there are significant and immediate consequences for schools deemed to be noncompliant, even if through no fault of their own.
Here are the top three things schools need to know…
View the full Alert on the Duane Morris LLP website.