- The U.S. Department of Education this week announced changes that will make it easier for programs with terms longer or shorter than a typical semester or quarter to disburse federal aid to students.
- Previously, the department considered semesters and trimesters that are 15 to 17 weeks long and quarters that are 10 to 12 weeks to be standard terms, which have simpler rules for disbursing Title IV funds than those with lengths outside those parameters.
- With the changes, standard terms now include semesters and trimesters of 14 to 21 weeks and quarters of 9 to 13 weeks. The revisions also allow a program's term length to vary "substantially" from year to year, the department said.
The department said in its announcement the changes are meant to give institutions more flexibility with their term lengths and "will increase opportunities for institutions to offer unique and innovative academic programs, which are better catered toward workforce needs."
Having nonstandard terms can increase financial aid administrators' workloads, experts say.
"Institutions would vastly prefer to be classified as having standard terms because it's easier for them to process their aid," Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said in an interview with Education Dive.
Medical schools had been asking the Ed Department to change the term policy in part to make offering specialized coursework simpler, the department said.
For instance, the Association of American Medical Colleges wrote to the Ed Department in January urging it to consider the terms of medical education programs as standard, even if they didn't meet the previous requirements.
Medical programs' terms often vary significantly in length because of clinical work opportunities and independent study for licensing exams. Since that previously made them nonstandard, students could be billed for their education before they had received their next disbursement of federal aid, the organization said.
The department applied the changes to all schools, however. "We believe that more than one type of school could possibly use this increased flexibility to better serve their students, and that all should have the opportunity to do so if they see fit," Ed Department spokesperson Angela Morabito said in an email to Education Dive.
The changes could also be a boon for some colleges that have offered graduate programs on nonstandard terms in order to cater to working adults' schedules, Peter Terebesi, president of consultancy Higher Ed Executives, told Education Dive.
However, the revisions are unlikely to spur colleges with already standard terms to lengthen their programs, Clare McCann, deputy director for federal policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank, said in an interview with Education Dive. That's because the changes don't include additional aid per term, so students may not be able to afford the cost of attending school for a couple more weeks.
"I would hope most institutions would take that into account when deciding whether or not to do this," she said.