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Higher Education Legislation Seeks to Undo New Department of Education Rules

Distance learning presents some legal challenges when students take classes through schools outside of their own states because credit hour and other rules vary by state. The Department of Education recently introduced rules to address this problem, but higher education groups are calling foul. A new bill to repeal these rules recently made it out of committee in the House of Representatives.

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By Sarah Wright

department of education rules distance education HR 2117

What Is HR 2117?

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) announced a new set of rules that would become effective as of July 1, 2011. These rules, broadly termed 'State Authorization,' did a number of things, including establishing an official federal definition of a credit hour. The more controversial part of State Authorization, and the rule that gave this set of regulations its name, has to do with distance learning.

According to these rules, distance learning institutions will have to be certified in the home state of every student. That means that if, for example, a student from California is taking a distance learning program from a school in Michigan, that program will have to be compliant with both California and Michigan standards. These rules have drawn criticism from schools that offer distance learning programs because they present additional challenges and may make it impossible to offer classes to students in certain states. A new bill, HR 2117, seeks to repeal these rules.

The issue of whether or not the rules should be repealed is complex. On the one hand, it's easy to understand the educational institutions' complaints that these rules make them jump through new hoops to reach a wider audience of students. But on the other hand, it's understandable that the DoE would want to establish a set of rules to address issues raised by the inter-state education afforded by distance learning. Different states have different standards for certain programs, and students may be denied licensure or the ability to work if they are not properly educated to the standards of their state of residence. There is a valid question as to whether this is the student's burden or the school's, highlighting the complexity of this issue.

HR 2117 and State Authorization's Future

As of July 1, 2011, the bill has been approved by the House Education and Workforce Committee. The next step for this legislation is to head to the full House for a vote. However, according to EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit education organization, it is not yet known when action will be taken on this bill. Even if HR 2117 does make it onto the House's docket during this legislative session, its future is uncertain. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the bill is popular among higher education lobbying groups, but the Democrat-controlled Senate is not likely to pass the repeal of the DoE's rules.

As for the State Authorization rules, the DoE seems aware of the controversy surrounding these new regulations. Though their official implementation begins on July 1, 2011, the Department recently announced that strict enforcement of compliance with these rules would not begin until the same date on 2014. The caveat to this delay is that distance learning schools will have to make an effort at compliance, either by applying for approval from the various states of student residence, documenting fact-finding about the necessity of approval in other states or documentation of development of a system for tracking students' state of residence.

Political philosophy differs on how to handle education reform, leading to a lot of back-and-forth in Congress.

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