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By Paul Bradley  /  
2012 May 14 - 12:00 am

Survey Finds New Regulations Vexing Distance Educators

Community college distance education programs are scrambling to comply with a raft of new regulations, some of them the consequence of a stalled federal government to rein in for-profit providers.

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The annual survey of the Instructional Technology Council found that growing numbers of college distance education administrators are concerned about the
so-called “state authentication” issue. The ITC, part of the American Association of Community Colleges, has since 2005 collected data and tracked key issues in community college distance education.

The 2011 survey found that distance education programs at community colleges continue to grow fast. Enrollments jumped by 8.2 percent between 2010 and 2011, substantially higher than the 1 percent increase in national overall enrollment, but more modest than the 20 percent spikes of just a few years ago.

The survey also found colleges struggling in an era of widespread budget cuts to provide adequate student services to the growing legions of online students. Distance education administrators polled by the ITC cited the struggle to provide student services as their most pressing issue.

The ITC surveyed 375 member institutions by mail, receiving 143 completed responses and compiled the results in its annual report.

The survey report said that the continued rapid increase in online enrollments has invited new oversight from federal and state regulators.

New interest in online education among the states was triggered by a 2010 federal effort to push a new regulation requiring colleges to obtain and document state approvals for any distance education program offered outside an institution’s home state. If a college based in Nebraska wanted to enroll students from Kansas in its distance education program, for example, the latter state would need to give its permission.

Though the federal regulation was blocked in court — an appeal by the U.S. Department of Education is pending — it reminded state officials of their authority to regulate out-of-state distance education providers and prompted many states to take a fresh look at their regulations.

The result has been a crazy quilt of regulations confronting community colleges promoting their distance education programs.

“During the past year, many states have been scrambling to get their regulations in order — since they are beginning to be inundated with authorization requests from out-of-state distance learning institutions,” the survey report said. “States continue to require authorization from out-of-state distance learning institutions that have a ‘point of presence’ within their borders, but they have different definitions of what constitutes ‘presence.’ For example, presence could be triggered when an out-of-state institution has a recruitment office or advertises online courses within its borders; employs state residents as online instructors or offers online courses to more than one resident; of even if it contracts with a hospital to offer local clinical internships or library access to its online students.”

Community college distance education programs are also taking steps to fight organized financial aid fraud rings uncovered by a report from the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General last September. The OIG report found that community colleges are particularly inviting targets for fraud rings because of their low tuition, which means that a balance usually remains after tuition costs are covered.

Since 2005, the OIG has assisted in the prosecution of 42 different fraud rings. More than $7.5 million in restitution and fines have been imposed by judges. But federal officials believe those figures represent just a fraction of financial aid losses incurred through fraud rings.

The ED recommended that colleges take several steps to combat fraud rings, including creating “fraud squads” to monitor potential illegal activity; providing enhanced training to financial aid staff; and disbursing financial aid payments throughout the year rather than in one lump sum.

The full report can be found at www.itcnetwork.org.

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