No Time Like the Present to Strengthen Consumer Protection
Written by Alejandra Acosta, policy analyst at New America & David Tandberg, senior vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at SHEEO
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Department of Education (ED) moved swiftly to publish flexibilities for educational entities dealing with the consequences of the pandemic response. In particular, ED allowed states and accreditors to waive many of their requirements, normally put in place to protect students and taxpayers from bad actors, for the sake of facilitating the pivot to remote learning. This move was important, as states, accreditors, and higher education broadly were in triage mode and needed the flexibilities to survive the transition to their new reality.
But now, over seven months into the pandemic and with few signs that would allow a return to normal this academic year, it’s time for regulators to establish a new normal. While these unprecedented times require flexibility, all three members of the triad — ED, states, and accreditors — still have an important consumer protection role that is arguably even more important in the current environment. Rather than step back, those entities should step up.
For instance, accreditors are publishing updates on ED’s flexibilities on their websites and holding webinars on what their virtual visits will mean to their institutions. While some accreditors have made adjustments to their practices to begin assessing quality during the pandemic, most have done little to address immediate quality concerns students have raised. Many surveys showed that most college students felt their teachers didn’t adapt well in the spring, and many students and even faculty believed instructor-student engagement was inadequate. Both states and accreditors have largely maintained spring semester pandemic regulatory flexibility. There are examples of regulators implementing important innovations in their oversight practices; however, others have yet to make substantive changes.
Regulators should be careful not to let this crisis go to waste. The transition to remote learning, while necessary for public health reasons, is not without risk, especially for the academically underprepared students who typically struggle most to succeed in online programs and the low-income students most devastated by the economic fallout of the pandemic. Therefore, accreditors and authorizers alike need to focus on protecting students from potential bad actors who could take advantage of the crisis. With more than half a year of working in a pandemic under their belts, here are some ways regulators can update their policies and processes to protect students during and beyond this highly unpredictable environment.
It’s Time to Go Online
State authorizers and accreditors should refresh their approaches to approving institutions so they can handle rapid switches between online and in-person education during the pandemic. In some places, this will require a technological refresh, as they tend to be paper- and site visit-based. Modernizing how states and accreditors work will allow them to respond faster to changes in teaching modality or other rapid changes in the case of a crisis, even beyond the current emergency. Pennsylvania, for example, has modified its site visit process to be conducted entirely online if needed. But careful approvals also require collecting the data necessary to understand changes, provide in-time support, improve research on student outcomes, and refine standards to best protect students in the long-term.
States and accreditors also need to consider the equity impacts of colleges’ plans to stay in-person, move online, or provide hybrid education, and accompany that with actionable guidelines and standards for institutions. Thousands of low-income students — especially first-time students and Black students — have changed or completely canceled their college plans, many citing that they stopped out of college because of the virtual environment. Without faculty and staff support, combined with their challenging personal situations, stopping out may have felt like their only choice. Regulators should require institutions to assess the equity impacts of their status and develop plans and interventions that will counteract harmful implications for students of color and low-income students.
The pandemic is also a prime opportunity to establish credit transfer policies between institutions and within states so that students who change institutions or choose not to enroll during the pandemic can restart their education smoothly. Transfer plans should also ensure that students at institutions that moved to pass/fail grading during the pandemic can transfer those credits. These policies are especially important for the students of color and low-income students who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. States and accreditors need to work together with institutions to understand the consequences of learning modality plans and transfer opportunities and implement standards and practices that will keep the country’s most vulnerable students engaged in the high-quality education they expect — and need — to weather the recession.
Ensure Quality in Online Programs
Much attention has rightly been focused on the shift to remote learning — the temporary move to online instruction. But states and accreditors also need to focus on providers entering the distance education market for the first time or seeking to permanently expand their online education offerings.
The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements could play a key role in helping ensure adequate consumer protections and quality through enhanced state oversight. NC-SARA was founded to streamline state authorization for distance education providers through reciprocity agreements that apply in all but one state. States with weak (and in some cases, non-existent) authorization requirements for distance education providers before NC-SARA saw those standards raised and baseline protections provided. But the application of the NC-SARA standards is highly variable across states, and some states with higher standards aren’t able to apply them to institutions located outside their borders. Moreover, NC-SARA standards don’t apply to institutions that don’t participate in NC-SARA, including the institutions offering online learning for the first time as a result of the pandemic. States’ standards need to be raised, applied more rigorously, and reevaluated in light of the mass transition to distance education resulting from COVID.
Accreditors can also update their standards to meet the new demands of widespread online education. Many accreditors recently updated or are in the process of updating their standards to be in compliance with new accreditor and distance education regulations (the latter of which will take effect in July 2021). But both of these regulations weaken provisions that might protect students. Accreditors have the power to hold their institutions to higher standards of quality, not just the bare minimum in new federal rules. Higher education will be online in some form for the foreseeable future, and accreditors should update their standards to ensure students receive the quality education they expect.
In the same vein, the prevalence of online education during the pandemic has led some institutions to seek out online program management companies (OPMs) to expand existing contracts to cover more programs and/or to begin building distance-education programs for the future. But OPMs aren’t always reputable and online programs (especially the graduate programs that many OPMs specialize in) aren’t always valuable for students. Plenty of sticky questions exist about whether the institution or the OPM is really running the program. Institutions and their regulators need to be cautious about entering into these often long-term, pricey contracts.
Protect Students from Permanent College Closures
The unprecedented financial challenges brought on by the pandemic have exacerbated already strapped budgets and sped up the possibility of college closures that experts predicted for years. Accreditors and state authorizers need to proactively protect students from this possibility.
Accreditors can take proactive steps to protect students from bad actors and high-risk institutions during this challenging time. While accreditors already consider the financial viability of their institutions, data are often not timely enough to reflect sudden shifts or current circumstances. Increased reporting on and evaluation of financial data, accounting for factors like the institution’s enrollment statistics and liquidity levels, can provide even more relevant figures. Likewise, states should be monitoring and assessing institutions’ financial viability. States can take immediate action to shore up an institution, require additional financial disclosures, or take steps to protect students. The need for timely data, for instance, led the Minnesota Office of Higher Education to conduct a survey to better understand the liquidity constraints of its authorized institutions.
The pandemic has added urgency to the call for accreditors and states to take steps to ensure students can complete their education if the school does permanently close, as well. That includes requiring high-risk institutions to create teach-out agreements, not just teach-out plans. A teach-out plan is just that — a plan. But unlike the basic outlines of a plan, teach-out agreements actually require institutions to come to a written agreement with a partner institution that would take their students should they close. With so many institutions already at risk of closure before the pandemic and at higher risk now, required teach-out agreements are a critical way states and accreditors can help ensure students are protected from the consequences of the pandemic.
Following a closure, states are often the only remaining regulatory actor in a position to 1) ensure that teach outs are implemented and followed through with, and 2) receive student complaints and requests. And they are often the entity that retains and provides student records. Therefore, states need to involve themselves early on as colleges move toward potential closure. This cannot be left to the accreditors, whose formal relationship and obligations cease when the institution ceases to exist. The state’s obligations to its citizens never cease, and the implications of a college closure for the students persist long after the college closes its doors.
States and accreditors can take this opportunity to establish closer relationships with each other as they work to protect students. For instance, one state higher education executive we interviewed shared that many of its institutions were confused about whether they were supposed to follow state or accreditor standards for certain certificate programs — especially when one entity relaxed its rules, but the other didn’t. In this constantly changing environment, it is more important than ever for states and accreditors to collaborate, share information, and minimize confusion for institutions and students.
Colleges and universities will continue to make changes to their modes of delivery throughout the fall semester and beyond. For instance, the California State University (CSU) system, one of the largest public higher education systems in the country, was one of the first institutional systems to announce that it will be primarily online in spring 2021. More institutions have since followed suit as the fall semester has progressed.
Many things will not “go back to normal” during the pandemic, especially as it does not show any signs of slowing down, and neither should state authorizers and accreditors. Regulators, including states and accreditors, need to approach this crisis as an opportunity to improve processes and policies, revise standards of quality, and focus on championing protections for students and taxpayers. For higher education to maintain and exceed the level of quality expected prior to the pandemic and prevent chaos and harm, states and accreditors should take steps toward the actions outlined above and work together to ensure that the 2020–21 school year is a successful one for all students. Lax coordination and outdated processes could enable bad actors to reign free and students to suffer.