Today, the Department of Education announced that it does not plan to implement new rules designed to protect students in online degree programs from being taken advantage of by schools that load students up with debt but offer useless degrees. The “Program Integrity and Improvement” rules (also known as the “State Authorization of Distance Education” rules), were scheduled to go into effect this July and were designed to “protect more than 5.5 million distance education students at degree-granting institutions.” But the Department is proposing to delay the rules and to start over with a new rulemaking, which would allow it to eliminate or rewrite the rules.
In its announcement, the Department said that it is taking this action “based on concerns recently raised by regulated parties”—i.e., the online education industry. NCLC and other advocates for students, on the other hand, urged the Department to move forward with implementing the rules.
The rules were created to close a loophole. As the Department explained when it announced the rules in 2016, “State authorization is a longstanding requirement in the Higher Education Act that requires institutions to be authorized in the state in which they are located as a condition for eligibility to receive Title IV Federal student aid. While all higher education institutions must have state authorization in the states in which they are physically located, there are no federal regulations for distance education providers in states where the institutions are not located.”
Under the rules, the Department would be able to refuse to provide federal student loans to attend schools offering online education programs in states where they are not authorized to do so. Among other protections for students, the rules would have helped prevent schools from wasting online students’ precious time and money by enrolling students in job-specific programs, such as nursing or teaching, that will not actually qualify them for licensure in that job in their state.
The Department is once again focused on protecting industry at the expense of students. This is the latest in a series of actions siding with industry against students:
Last summer, the Department announced that it similarly planned to delay and rewrite borrower defense and gainful employment. Those rules were designed to protect students from predatory schools and to ensure that students are able to reap the benefit of their investment in education. (We expect to see the Department’s proposed replacement rules soon, but based on its draft proposals over the winter, we are very concerned that the rules will significantly weaken student protections.)
In December, the Department announced that instead of cancelling the loans of students who were cheated by Corinthian Colleges, as the prior administration had done, it intended to only cancel a fraction of many borrowers’ loans—leaving borrowers on the hook for the remainder.
In April, the Department restored recognition of for-profit school accreditor ACICS, which the prior administration had terminated as a federal aid gatekeeper based on ACICS’s documented failures to set, monitor, or enforce standards at the schools it accredited, including the now-defunct Corinthian, ITT, and FastTrain.
And two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that the Department had “effectively killed investigations into possibly fraudulent activities at several large for-profit colleges where top hires of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, had previously worked” by reassigning, marginalizing, or instructing its fraud investigators to focus on other matters. Investigations into possible misconduct by DeVry, Bridgepoint Education and Career Education Corporation have halted since former employees of these companies took on senior positions at the Department. (The Daily Show ran a video segment on this problem.)
Leaders at the Department of Education seem to have forgotten, so we will continue to remind them: its job is to help students access education and achieve their dreams, not to help education companies make more money.