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Last fall the House of Representatives unveiled Congress's first crack at rewriting the Higher Education Act, last renewed in 2008. Now it’s the Senate’s turn -- and leaders of some of the nation’s highest-enrolling online institutions want their voices heard.

In a letter Tuesday to the Senate education committee's two highest ranking members, presidents of seven entirely or partially online institutions proposed new definitions for key terms in the section of the law that deals with distance education. In particular, they’re hoping to replace the controversial standard of “regular and substantive interaction” in online courses with something clearer and more precise.

“We don’t imagine that the language we sent is necessarily definitive,” said Ed Klonoski, president of Charter Oak State College and one of the signatories. “What we’re trying to do with the letter is make sure that when the senators work through the definitional section of the higher ed bill, that we are at least part of the conversation.”

The letter to Senators Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Patty Murray of Washington, the committee's senior Democrat, recommends:

  • Refining the definition of “distance education” to include specific requirements for aspects of the learning experience including “instruction, assessment, mentoring/advising and learning support.”
  • Clarifying that “correspondence education” refers to courses both self-paced and self-taught.
  • Expanding the government’s repertoire of outcomes data to include the program level, rather than just comparing institutions more broadly.

In addition to Klonoski, the letter’s signatories include James Baldwin of Excelsior College, Michael Crow of Arizona State University, Sue Ellspermann of Ivy Tech Community College, Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University, and Scott Pulsipher of Western Governors University. According to Klonoski, Murray’s office reached out to Excelsior in October asking for ideas from the nonprofit sector on rewriting the law.

Observers across the distance education spectrum took issue with the PROSPER Act, a bill that passed the House of Representatives at the end of last year and hasn’t gained much political traction since. The Senate discussions present another opportunity for bipartisan discourse.

For the distance education clause, Klonoski and his fellow presidents want the requirement of “regular and substantive interaction” to be more elastic -- focused on the qualities of the educational experience rather than merely the formal presence of a human instructor.

Institutional leaders hope more specificity will help prevent the cognitive dissonance that arose last year when the Department of Education’s inspector general issued a report critical of Western Governors. The department hasn't yet acted on the report’s recommended penalty and is widely expected to disregard it.

The definition of “correspondence education,” meanwhile, is currently broad enough to include competency-based education, which proponents consider to be a worthwhile learning mode for students with diverse learning needs. Adding “self-taught” to the correspondence language, according to Klonoski, clarifies that such courses are initiated by the student and involve only minimal engagement with an instructor of any kind.

As for requesting that outcomes data narrow to the program level, the presidents said they want students to be able to make informed choices about the courses they’re selecting. The data they’re requesting include 100 percent and 150 percent graduation rates; one-year retention rates; average annual cost for full-time attendance, broken out by tuition, fees and living costs; and federal student debt from tuition and fees.

Defining competency-based education is a matter for another time, Klonoski said -- the presidents didn’t get to it in their discussions around the rewrite.

Stakeholders have long sought clearer definitions of these terms, which have taken on increasing significance as online programs have grown more prevalent and diverse. Reaching consensus hasn’t been easy; the presidents’ first discussion around this issue broke down after too much conflict, according to Klonoski.

“I’m proud of us,” Klonoski said. “This wasn’t easy.”

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