Turn Back the Clock

For-profit-college advocates and state regulators in Texas are taking on the U.S. Department of Education over its interpretation of federal rules for determining what classifies as a “clock hour” academic program.

Students typically qualify for fewer federal financial aid dollars when a college measures their academic progress on an actual clock rather than in credit hours. So the arcane legal definition of clock hour status can have big bottom-line repercussions for both students and colleges.

Degree programs generally use credit hours, as do most other credential tracks at colleges. Common exceptions are programs, like those of flight school credentials, truck driving certificates or cosmetology credentials, in which students earn a license that requires a certain number of real hours logged.

The Education Department, however, has given signals that it may take a hard line on clock hour, insiders said, which could prevent many programs from using credit hours. For example, a department official said in September that the rule could be applied to undergraduate degree and non-degree programs at for-profits, as well as non-degree tracks at nonprofit institutions. But whether community colleges or other nonprofits could actually take a hit is one of several murky, difficult-to-answer questions in the clock hour debate.

Brian Moran is executive vice president of government relations and general counsel for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. He said the for-profit trade group was frustrated by a “great deal of uncertainty” about the department’s position.

The Texas Workforce Commission apparently shares that frustration, adding an additional states’ rights friction to the fracas. The commission, which monitors college record-keeping as part of the state’s approval process for career-oriented academic programs, exchanged strongly-worded letters with the department over the interpretation of clock hour regulations.

“We understand that Education Department representatives have taken the position that under Texas law a career school or college is required to operate and measure time in clock hours,” the commission said in a January letter. “We believe that establishing the clock hour standard as a default position for Texas career schools and colleges runs counter to Texas laws and rules."

A department spokeswoman said the agency is working on a clarification of its position.

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