No Going Back

Will a House of Representatives bill intended to overturn two of the Education Department’s "program integrity" rules — one creating a federal definition of a credit hour and another requiring colleges to get state approval to operate — make it through both houses of Congress? Would President Obama ever sign the legislation into law, undermining his own Education Department?

When it comes to the state authorization requirements, at least, there’s another question: Would overturning the federal rule even make a difference? Probably not, observers say.

The state authorization rule would require colleges and universities to obtain approval from every state in which they operate — even if "operating" consists only of enrolling students from that state. The rule proved unpopular as soon as it was introduced, drawing protests from across all sectors of higher education. Institutions that offer distance education said the federal regulation would force them to follow state laws and rules that predate online learning and create a nightmare of red tape. The complaints eased only slightly when the Education Department announced it would delay enforcing the rule until 2014.

But in at least one way, the rule has already accomplished the department’s goal of applying more scrutiny to institutions whose students receive federal financial aid. It has drawn attention to state regulations and authorization requirements that were previously overlooked, or ignored, by all parties. Some states have begun to review their authorization processes. Even if the federal rule is overturned, those state policies will be part of the regulatory landscape for the foreseeable future.

“This would repeal the rule, but the problem is, it would have no effect on the state regulations,” said Russ Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis of WCET, a cooperative that focuses on technology in higher education. “Those are all still in place, and the states still expect that institutions will be complying.”

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