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New rules proposed to improve quality of online courses

CeonlineNew rules for schools providing online courses are being proposed that would require state authorization to qualify for federal financial aid dollars, the U.S. Department of Education said Tuesday. The proposal will help students get a quality education and make sure that taxpayer dollars aren’t wasted on schools that fail to deliver, said Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.

“Online courses have become an increasingly popular option for students seeking a higher education, especially for vocational training,” said Suzanne Martindale, staff attorney for Consumers Union. “Today’s proposal represents an important step towards creating baseline federal standards for distance education programs that will help protect students from poor quality schools that do little more than burden them with debt.” 

Under the proposal, the department would require a school offering distance education programs to get authorization in each state where it wants to market its programs to students. It also requires any agreement between states to leave room for states to enforce their own consumer protection laws.

However, the rule stops short of requiring schools offering distance education programs to obtain programmatic accreditation in all states where they want to do business, Martindale said.

The rule requires disclosures, and an "acknowledgement" from the student that they received the disclosure, but the disclosure could be buried in an enrollment contract, she said. This means that students could sign up for programs with little actual notice that it won't make them eligible to sit for an exam to obtain a professional credential, such as a nurse's license, in their home state.

“Some for-profit career colleges have a history of enrolling students in online courses that mire them in debt without providing the education they need to get a license in the state where they live,” she said. “The Department of Education should strengthen its proposal by requiring accreditation for all specific programs offered to ensure students aren't pushed into signing up for programs that won't meet their needs.”

In addition, the proposed rule doesn't give a student's home state clear and final authority to resolve complaints, Martindale said. It lets the states’ agreement determine which state has authority to resolve complaints, which could undercut states with stronger consumer protections.

Consumers Union called on the department to make clear that a student's home state always has final authority to resolve complaints, as well as generally apply their consumer protection laws.

Copyright 2016, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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