Coronavirus Public Health Emergency Underscores Need for Department of Education's Proposed Distance Learning Rules

Coronavirus Public Health Emergency Underscores Need for Department of Education's Proposed Distance Learning Rules

April 1, 2020

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed new rules today that would govern distance learning for higher education students. Although work on the proposed Distance Learning and Innovation regulation started more than a year ago, the COVID-19 National Emergency underscores the need for reform and for all educational institutions to have a robust capacity to teach remotely.

"With our support, colleges and universities were among the first to transition to online and distance learning so learning could continue during the coronavirus pandemic," said Secretary DeVos. "Frankly, though, they are working within the confines of stale rules and regulations that are in desperate need of rethinking. We know there are fewer and fewer ‘traditional' students in higher education, and this current crisis has made crystal clear the need for more innovation. It's past time we rethink higher ed to meet the needs of all students. Fortunately, we started work last year to develop a new set of standards that are responsive to current realities, that embrace new technology, that open doors for much-needed innovation in higher education, and that expand access for students to the flexible, relevant education opportunities they need."

Crafted by a diverse group of experts during the Department's 2019 negotiated rulemaking, the Department's proposed Distance Learning and Innovation regulations enhance educational quality and reduce barriers to innovation while maintaining safeguards to limit the risks to students and taxpayers. These proposed regulations build upon Secretary DeVos' call for institutions, educators, and policy makers to "rethink higher education" and find new ways to expand educational opportunity, demonstrate the value of a postsecondary credential and lifelong learning, and reduce costs for students and schools.

The proposed regulation would do the following:

  • 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 (HEA)-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, HEA assistance to students in subscription-based programs.
  • Require prompt action by the Department on applications to participate, or continue to participate, as an eligible institution in the HEA, Title IV program. In the past, these applications have been stalled for months or even years.

The proposed Distance Learning and Innovation rule was the result of a months-long negotiated rulemaking effort that began with public hearings and engaged a subcommittee of subject matter experts to formulate recommendations that were ultimately considered by a panel of representatives from the higher education and consumer protection communities.  Negotiators reached consensus on the language included in this proposed rule, which strikes a balance between fostering innovation and protecting students and taxpayers from waste, fraud, and abuse. 

The Department will publish the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register for a 30-day public comment period. Following the comment period, the Department will publish a final regulation prior to Nov. 1, 2020.