The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DeVos moves to boost college online learning while reducing regulatory oversight

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's agency Monday issued a plan to extend federal student aid dollars to more higher-education providers. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The U.S. Education Department issued proposals Monday that could extend federal student aid dollars to a wider variety of higher-education providers, a move that some say could spur innovation and others worry could attract predatory actors.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has bemoaned what counts as a college course worthy of federal loans and grants. She has also challenged the accreditation system that stands between schools and billions of dollars in financial aid, questioning whether the Education Department’s accreditation rules work to the detriment of innovation and students.

Betsy DeVos reinstates controversial gatekeeper of for-profit colleges

The proposals would grant accrediting agencies more leeway to approve programs that don’t fit traditional models and loosen standards on instruction and the interaction between students and faculty. In doing so, the Education Department could bolster online and competency-based education, a burgeoning field that lets students learn at their own pace and move along as they master material.

The proposals are part of a process in which education stakeholders attempt to reach consensus on regulatory changes. But given the issues up for debate and the ways they could fundamentally change higher education, negotiators may have difficulty agreeing on much.

Under the proposals, the Education Department would give accreditors, and to a lesser extent colleges, more authority over how distance education, correspondence courses and credit hours are defined. The plan takes aim at Obama-era rules, including what counts as a credit hour.

To ensure that college credits were meaningful, the previous administration defined a credit as one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out-of-class student work each week. Colleges and universities bristled at the rule when it was introduced in 2010, saying it infringed on their right to determine academic programs. Now, they may get a chance to work with accreditors to establish what a credit means.

Education inspector general wants to pull student aid from a popular online university

Schools with a growing focus on online education could also benefit from a proposal to eliminate a 50 percent cap on the outsourcing of academic programs to providers that are not accredited, which would pave the way for institutions to have outside parties run academic programs. And online programs would no longer have to seek approval from all the states where they enroll students or disclose information about whether they meet state licensure requirements.

Accreditors would also gain the right to say who qualifies as an instructor in a college-level course without the Education Department’s approval. New accrediting agencies would no longer need at least two years of experience to serve as gatekeepers in the federal financial aid program.

“We want to raise the bar on the student experience, on the rigor of learning and on learning outcomes,” Diane Auer Jones, the department’s principal deputy undersecretary, said on a call with reporters Monday. “One of the ways is to reduce the focus on administrative minutiae to give accreditors and institutions more time to focus on what matters most to students, which is what happens in the classroom, what kind of services are provided.”

The proposals received mixed reviews.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents accredited institutions, praised some efforts to give accreditors more latitude, but she expressed concerns that some aspects of the plan leave too much power in the hands of the federal government.

“There are a number of things that we like in these proposed regulations, including dropping the federal definition of credit hour . . . and improving the federal recognition process for accrediting organizations,” Eaton said. “However, we are concerned that, in a number of other areas, these proposed regulations would not reduce the federal role in academic decision-making regarding quality and quality assurance of higher education.”

But advocates for greater accountability in the federal financial aid system see the proposals as setting the stage for more waste, fraud and abuse.

“Individually, some of these proposals are problematic, but taken together, they are an open invitation to poor-quality-education providers to access taxpayer dollars and waste students' time and money,” said Clare McCann, a former policy adviser at the Education Department under President Barack Obama.

McCann, a senior policy analyst at the think tank New America, said the Education Department’s proposals remove the agency’s oversight of accreditors and institutions, limit accreditors' oversight of colleges and eliminate states' ability to authorize institutions enrolling their students. Those actions, she said, would undermine accountability for billions of taxpayer dollars pumped into higher education.

“This is our going-in position, so this does not mean this is where we will come out of rulemaking,” Jones said. “And in some of these areas we know that the outside community has far greater expertise than we do. This is a starting point, not the end point.”