Turning into the new year, the Education Department has released a series of papers outlining how they propose to increase program integrity and institutional quality in higher education, building on the Biden Administration’s longstanding mission to improve school accountability.
Strategies the Department is pursuing to effect its influence revolve around accreditors’ and state agencies’ regulation measures, governance in distance education, Title IV fund disbursement and more.
The feds will be engaged in negotiated rulemaking from Jan. 8 to Jan. 11 with 15 constituent groups to try to influence the changes. Non-federal negotiators representing higher education include respected voices among minority-serving institutions, financial aid administrators, current student loan borrowers and other stakeholders.
“The Biden-Harris Administration remains committed to ensuring that higher education institutions and programs are held accountable for delivering on their promise of a better future for students and our financial aid programs are helping students accomplish their goals,” said U.S. Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal in the press release. “These efforts are another step in improving the higher education system and ensuring colleges are providing all students with high-quality opportunities for upward social and economic mobility.”
On the agenda for program integrity
Here are the five key issues that will be deliberated upon throughout the week.
In this meeting, negotiators will discuss processes that institutions must adhere to when dispensing and overseeing Title IV aid. The proposed changes aim to establish policies that are more “student-friendly” and ensure all recipients receive the last dollar they are entitled to.
For example, the Department proposes returning any remaining unused dollars left on a student meal plan card purchased using Title IV funds instead of allowing colleges to “weep” the leftover funds. Also on the agenda is the desire to remove regulations that permit institutions to incorporate the cost of books and supplies into tuition and fees, since students can usually find lower-cost resources elsewhere.
The proposals and questions in mind for the discussion seek to address the requirements for state approval and licensure, as well as state authorization reciprocity agreements, to ensure adequate oversight of institutions.
The Department is concerned that certain institutions granted exemption from state authorization regulations do not have proper oversight. This could hurt students and taxpayers who may be duped by shoddy programs that gain access to federal student aid programs, despite their lack of integrity. Reciprocity agreements that provide students distance education opportunities via interstate agreements also lack oversight, allowing manipulation of state rules concerning complaints and proper governance.
Negotiators will deliberate on empowering the Department to acquire more accurate data from online students and their success outcomes. The feds wish to increase overall oversight of distance education programs to protect students, for example, in the event of a college closure.
For example, the Department proposes that institutions that serve students predominantly via distance education create a “virtual location” that provides oversight agencies a one-stop shop for student outcomes data and compares it with those enrolled in similar programs.
Withdrawals and return to Title IV funds (R2T4)
In the event a student ceases attendance at a university, the Department aims to prevent balances from becoming immediately due. The proposal seeks to establish a grace period that allows the former student to repay their balance based on the terms of their promissory note rather than when they stop attending.
The Department aims to underscore the accreditation process by enhancing its rigor and establishing a risk-based review system. It also aims to update its process recognizing independent private non-profit and state entities responsible for institutions’ and programs’ quality of education.