- Diane Auer Jones, a top higher ed official at the Education Department, told reporters at an event in Washington Monday that the agency intends to streamline the accreditation process and move away from a "one-size-fits-all solution" during its negotiated rulemaking session. The current system, she argued, has prevented some institutions from exploring new educational models.
- Jones said that in recent years, states and the federal government have shifted too many responsibilities to accreditors, a trend the Ed Department hopes to change. "If we can clear the plates of accreditors to get back to what they uniquely do best, which is educational quality, they can put more time and energy and effort into the piece of the triad that is theirs," she said.
- Expanding the College Scorecard, an online database that tracks student outcomes, will help shield students from fraudulent marketing practices, Jones said. The department is planning to expand it this year, though it may take longer to include some earnings data, she added.
The Ed Department has indicated it wants to make it easier for colleges to experiment with new educational models by loosening several areas of the regulations that govern their eligibility for Title IV funding. Among them are the definition of the credit hour and what counts as "regular and substantive" interaction between students and instructors.
However, Jones said the department does not intend to do away with a federal definition of the credit hour entirely. "It is easier to start the conversation from a blank page," she said. "We know that where we end up is not going to be the same as where we began."
Likewise, Jones said the department is not trying to eliminate the "regular and substantive" definition, which requires courses to have a subject-matter expert interact with students. She indicated a new definition may count student interactions with artificial intelligence programs or with a learning team.
The department already put its support behind more flexibility for "regular and substantive" instruction when it pulled back a $713 million fine for Western Governors University after it found the online college's disaggregated faculty model compliant with current regulations. It also supported the university's use of competency-based education, leaving it up to the accreditor to determine whether programs "include sufficient content" for the credit hours they award.
Several organizations have decried proposals to loosen regulations in these areas. Third Way, for example, cautioned that weakening the "regular and substantive" rule may allow colleges to lean on pre-recorded videos and reduce student access to subject-matter experts. Others have noted that before the federal credit hour definition was in place, some institutions inflated credits to receive more federal financial aid funding.
Stakeholders representing students, accreditors and a variety of postsecondary institutions will hash out the proposed regulatory overhaul during a series of meetings early this year. Negotiators voted in January to add state regulators to the table, though state attorneys general will not be included. Critics of the decision to leave AGs out say there aren't enough consumer protection advocates participating in the discussions, Bloomberg Government reported.
Many of the representatives, however, have strong interests in online and competency-based education, including Southern New Hampshire University, the University of Alaska, and the parent company of for-profit colleges Strayer University and Capella University. Even so, some doubt they will reach consensus. If they don't come to an agreement, the Ed Department will be able to write the rules itself.