If the distance education headlines seem to be filled with Europe’s soon-to-be-enforced GDPR, the American EdTech counterparts might want to stay tuned to their own regulatory environment. On July 1, a new set of rules by the US Education Department focusing on distance education providers, including online schools, is set to become active. WCET, a tech-focused commission of North American education providers, is offering a guide for institutions, Online Program Managers, and other related or interested parties. There is only a small twist: WCET, perhaps the most knowledgeable entity on US online education regulation, is subtitling its guide “As Best We Know It.”
Do not see this as a fault on WCET’s part. The Commission has closely followed the Education Department’s updates for more than a year now, ever since criticisms about practices by some players —for-profit schools in particular, some of which take part in WCET— came under the public eye. Since then, controversies and disagreements have been the order of the day, but if there was one thing everyone seemed to agree on, it was the need for the Department to take on a larger role. WCET’s main concern (of many) involves the validity of SARA, an inter-state agreement that allows students from one state to enroll on a program offered by an entity in another state. As long as both states had an agreement under SARA, the student would not need to provide additional documentations for enrollment, including beneficiaries of subsidies such as the Pell Grant (the largest of all). While WCET’s Director of Policy & Analysis, Russ Poulin, who exchanges directly with the Education Department officials, believes the government agency is supportive of SARA and similar exchanges, the current body of law does not seem to respect these agreements, meaning that institutions might be failing to comply with the law even if they follow SARA strictly. Until very recently, WCET did not expect the new regulations would be signed into law, but in its guide, released on April 19th, it declares:
«The Department and Congress have had numerous opportunities to kill this regulation. We thought they would have done so by now, if that was their intent.»
It is a confusing landscape. To counter the uncertainty, WCET’s guide attempts to be all-encompassing and as faithful to the current version of the regulation as possible. Finer details are available on WCET’s guide, but there seem to be some guiding principles for distance education institutions:
- Until further notice, do not be content with SARA and make sure you are in compliance with the law as it currently is. Also, do not expect the law will be overturned any time soon.
- However, do not consider SARA invalid, or that withdrawing from SARA will help with compliance. In many cases, SARA offers provisions not found in the Education Department’s guidelines, such as conflict resolution.
- If your state is not in SARA, prepare for compliance to necessary procedures not yet listed on the law. Best examples are complaint processes and notification processes. Reach out to your state authority and legal counsel for guidance.
- Keep your students’ information about location and residence on file and up to date.
- Be ready for the July 1st regulation implementation to the best of your ability.
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