ACE Holds Capitol Hill Forum on Proposed Distance Education Regulations
July 20, 2023

On Tuesday, ACE, in collaboration with the Presidents Forum, hosted a discussion on Capitol Hill to examine the Department of Education’s (ED) draft regulations regarding distance education. In front of a packed room, the panelists explored how ED’s proposed rules to upend the current state reciprocity agreement would create challenges for institutions offering distance education courses and their students, while also discussing a better way forward.

As part of an over 1,000-page draft rule released in May, ED proposed undoing the state reciprocity agreement by requiring institutions to meet all state consumer protection laws related to recruitment, closure, and misrepresentation where distance education is offered, regardless of National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) participation. Forty-nine states participate in NC-SARA, a voluntary agreement that provides national standards for interstate postsecondary distance education.

“That should tell you a whole lot, that there’s 49 states that voluntarily opt-in to ensure that students have greater access to higher education,” said Emmanual Guillory, senior director of government relations at ACE. “We have to go back to the drawing board to make sure that if we’re going to move forward in this way, that we’re bringing actual stakeholders to the table that have the knowledge and deep expertise to ensure that there won’t be negative consequences.”

The participants discussed how ED’s proposal would create major hurdles for institutions to offer distance education courses to students in other states and would decrease access to postsecondary education more broadly. Excelsior University President David Schejbal said that prior to states joining NC-SARA, schools were forced to reduce access to students in some states.

“I can tell you what would happen now if we roll back NC-SARA, exactly the same thing would happen,” Schejbal said.

Schejbal added that there has been a longstanding misunderstanding of online education. Scott Pulsipher, Presidents Forum board chair and president of Western Governors University, expanded on this idea, describing how new technologies have enabled colleges and universities to increase student access, yet well-intentioned policies often create friction for, or outright exclude programs that leverage online learning, based on misperceptions that don’t reflect today’s realities.

“We tend to raise barriers and put up buttresses that perpetuate the traditional in-person model that isn’t working for many individuals already,” Pulsipher said. “Maybe we should stop thinking about ways to define how education looks, and start increasing accountability into whether it works.” 

In addition to changes to state authorization, the proposed rule includes policy revisions to gainful employment, financial responsibility, administrative capability, certification procedures, and ability to benefit, among other areas. You can read ACE’s summary of the proposed rule here. ACE and nearly 50 other organizations warned ED in comments that some of the department’s proposals would be problematic.

ED, which received more than 7,500 comments on the proposed regulations, aims to issue a final rule by November 1, which would take effect July 1, 2024.