Washington Watch: Input on ED’s upcoming rulemaking sessions

U.S. Education Department (Photo: AACC)

Responding to the U.S. Education Department’s (ED) solicitation for input on upcoming negotiated-rulemaking sessions, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has presented both live and written comments on the topics ED has identified. The Higher Education Act (HEA) requires ED to establish negotiated-rulemaking committees in implementing any rules under the Title IV student aid programs.

As AACC’s senior vice president for government relations, I presented in-person comments on April 12, and AACC subsequently provided formal views. Some of the highlights of AACC’s positions follow.

Accreditation

ED is considering revising the rules on accreditation. AACC stated that accreditors continue to effectively serve their role to ensure quality and continuous improvement on community college campuses. AACC maintained that the strength of accreditation derives in part from its having clearly articulated and consistent procedures, and that federal policy should reflect this goal. It should also be noted that ED is explicitly prohibited from regulating the 10 standards of accreditation.

AACC also stated that the department should not create any undue obstacles for institutions that are required by state law or other external forces to change institutional accreditors, so long as the colleges remain in good standing with those accreditors. In recent months, the authority and appropriate role of ED concerning such changes in accreditors has drawn attention.

Return of Title IV funds

ED has stated its interest to review the “Return of Title IV Funds” (R2T4) regulations. Unfortunately, the reality remains that, for community colleges, the regulations are time-consuming and costly to implement. Even with highly sophisticated student- and academic-related data systems, campuses indicate that determining a student’s last date of attendance or withdrawal is a complex, labor-intensive process that involves a variety of academic and administrative personnel and offices. Therefore, AACC is eager to work with the department and other negotiators to streamline implementation and compliance in this area. The association is particularly interested in securing greater flexibility for campus, despite a highly prescriptive statute.

Third-party servicers

AACC’s most-detailed comments on the proposed negotiated-rulemaking sessions concerned third-party servicers. The department’s February 2023 guidelines for third-party servicers were highly problematic for community colleges. The clarifications provided in an April 11 blogpost should alleviate a good portion of the financial and administrative burden of these guidelines, but AACC believes that further narrowing narrow the scope of the guidance is necessary, particularly when it comes to instruction done by non-institutional providers with whom community colleges have structured arrangements.

Related article: ED delays effective date of third-party servicer guidelines

The negotiated-rulemaking announcement also stated that ED may consider “factors such as reporting, financial responsibility, compliance, and past performance as a component of Title IV institutional eligibility.” Without having further details to respond to, AACC did not make specific comments, but it noted that “IV eligibility is of paramount importance to community colleges, and anything that impacts that is of great interest to the sector.”

Distance education

ED’s rulemaking project also may touch on key aspects of the regulation of online education. Reflecting previous discussions, the department has indicated potential interest in requiring state licensing agencies to promulgate minimum standards in certain areas. Such an assertion of authority would likely be controversial, in part because it might complicate the interstate state authorization reciprocity agreements (commonly known as NC-SARA), and because the department arguably lacks authority to impose such requirements. AACC is also aware that most community college online education programs are delivered to students in the state in which the institution is physically located.

ED is also interested in examining how primarily online “clock hour” programs are delivered and regulated. Relatively few community college programs are subject to clock hour regulation, and ED’s likely focus in this area will be on for-profit institutions. That said, community college distance educators are generally of the mind that the strictures of the clock-hour requirement underemphasize what is most important in the academic process – learning.

AACC will continue to inform members about relevant developments, particularly when ED publishes a formal solicitation for membership on the rulemaking committees.

About the Author

David Baime
David Baime is senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.