As colleges weigh whether to open campuses for the fall term, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance Friday that extended temporary flexibilities around distance education through the end of the year.
- Colleges can continue to use distance education until Dec. 31, even if they don't have accreditor approval to do so. Accrediting agencies may also continue conducting virtual site visits.
- Additionally, the guidance clarifies eligibility for small business relief loans and how to handle Title IV returns for students who withdraw.
The guidance allows colleges that must continue offering online classes to stay eligible for federal funding without going through the typical review process required to launch online and distance education programs. Without the extension, schools may have been forced to reopen their campuses before they were ready, lawmakers pointed out in a letter to the department last week.
The document is largely similar to guidance the department issued in March, laying out expectations for colleges and their accreditors about the degree of flexibility they had in moving courses online, observers note.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups have questioned whether the department is providing enough oversight of how colleges are transitioning to remote instruction, even if temporarily. Like previous guidance, the new document doesn't require colleges to alert the Ed Department about the changes they're making to their instruction.
But Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank, said colleges should be required to document such changes along with whether they plan to continue teaching programs online after the crisis subsides.
They should also say how they're meeting the requirement that distance education programs must provide students "regular and substantive interaction" with their instructors, she added. In guidance released in early March, the department gave instructors wide latitude in meeting these requirements, saying they could email, teleconference or chat online with students to do so.
"I was hoping that if the department were going to extend the guidance any further, it would at least have some bare minimum reporting requirements," said Antoinette Flores, director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. "I worry that the longer this goes on … that there's not really enough attention being paid to quality."
Some accreditors have had similarly lax requirements. The New England Commission of Higher Education, for instance, said on its website that it would "appreciate hearing" from its institutions about changes to their instructional delivery and academic calendar. Others — such as the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges and the Higher Learning Commission — are asking their schools to notify them of changes.
The guidance also provides some clarity around eligibility for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a federal relief program established to help small businesses, including private colleges, continue to pay workers through the crisis. The loans can be forgiven if recipients meet certain requirements, such as keeping their full staff on the payroll for eight weeks. Higher ed groups had previously asked Congress for more flexibility for colleges to receive these funds.
Too much debt can hurt a school's composite score, a measure the Ed Department uses to assess an institution's financial health. In its latest guidance, the department said it will exclude from a college's count of liabilities the amount of PPP loans the school expects will be forgiven and instead raise its equity or assets by that amount. Generally, if a school's score drops below a certain level, its access to federal financial aid is restricted.
The department also noted that institutions should not count work-study students toward their employee counts and payroll costs for the program.
Colleges also don't have to return Title IV funds if students withdraw because of a coronavirus-related issue, according to the new guidance. Schools that have switched from in-person to virtual instruction are allowed to consider all withdrawals of students enrolled in campus-based instruction to be a result of the COVID-19 national emergency.