9 new distance learning rules: What you need to know

New rules endorse competency-based education and seek to clarify financial aid eligibility in online programs
By: | August 25, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic had increased urgency behind establishing new regulations for distance learning in higher ed. (GettyImages/PeopleImages)The COVID-19 pandemic had increased urgency behind establishing new regulations for distance learning in higher ed. (GettyImages/PeopleImages)

Reducing costs and expanding access to higher education are the goals of new federal distance learning regulations released Tuesday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement.

The new regulations, which go into effect July 1, 2021, endorse competency-based instructional models that reward credits based on the learning students can demonstrate rather than on spending a certain amount of time in class.

The new rules, which institutions are free to adopt upon their publication, also seek to clarify which courses are eligible for Title IV aid and offer more flexibility for U.S. students enrolled at foreign colleges and universities.

“While we moved quickly at the start of the pandemic to provide temporary distance learning flexibilities for students, these new regulations provide a permanent upgrade to online and competency-based education,” DeVos said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a video call is not enough, and our outdated rules did not comport with 21st-century realities.”


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The final regulations, which are the result of months of negotiations, strike “a balance between fostering innovation and protecting students and taxpayers from waste, fraud, and abuse,” the Department of Education says.

Here’s a list of the new Distance Learning and Innovationregulations:

  • Emphasize demonstrated learning over seat time.
  • Remove confusion over whether a course is eligible for Title IV aid by defining “regular and substantive” interaction between students and instructors.
  • Clarify and simplify the requirements for direct assessment programs, including how to determine equivalent credit hours.
  • Add a definition of “juvenile justice facility” to ensure that incarcerated students remain Pell-eligible.
  • Allow students enrolled in Title IV, Higher Education Act-eligible foreign institutions to complete up to 25% of their programs at an eligible institution in the United States. This provision is particularly important for students temporarily unable to attend courses abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Encourage employer participation in developing educational programs.
  • Create a new, student-centric system for disbursing Title IV, Higher Education Act assistance to students in subscription-based programs.
  • Require prompt action by the Department of Education on applications to participate, or continue to participate, as an eligible institution in the Higher Education Act, Title IV program. In the past, these applications have been stalled for months or even years.
  • Allow clock hour programs, which often lead to state-licensed occupations, to utilize innovative learning models.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.


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