California Acts to Fix Problem Blocking Aid for Online Students

State officials set up complaint process for students enrolled at out-of-state public and nonprofit colleges -- but Education Department won't confirm the fix will actually work.

July 30, 2019
 

Officials in California believe they have solved a problem that the Trump administration last week said could have barred federal financial aid to tens of thousands of Californians enrolled online at public and private nonprofit colleges in other states.

But officials at the U.S. Education Department said Monday afternoon they could not confirm whether the state's changes will resolve the situation.

The state's Department of Consumer Affairs on Monday activated a new process through which such students can submit complaints about their out-of-state online providers. Through a link on the agency's website and a toll-free telephone number, online students enrolled at public and private nonprofit colleges outside California will be able to submit complaints directly to the consumer agency, which will investigate.

A similar process -- through California's Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, which is part of the Department of Consumer Affairs -- is already in place for students enrolled in out-of-state for-profit colleges.

Monday's announcement about the new process was a direct reaction to last week's stunner from the U.S. Education Department that Californians enrolled in online programs at public or private nonprofit colleges and universities in other states would be ineligible for federal financial aid under 2016 rules requiring institutions operating online to secure approval from each state in which they intend to enroll students.

The long-contested state authorization rules, which were originally drafted during the Obama administration's first term, had been blocked for several years by legal challenges from for-profit and other critics of the regulations, and then delayed as the Trump administration undertook a process to rewrite them.

But the Obama-era rules took effect in May after a federal judge, acting in a lawsuit brought by two faculty unions that supported the 2016 regulations and opposed the Trump administration's efforts to delay them, ordered the Education Department to put them in place. The lead plaintiff in that case, the National Education Association, asserted that the Trump administration was delaying the Obama-era rules, and trying to implement its own version, out of a desire to protect for-profit colleges.

The Education Department's announcement last week said the 2016 regulations left it no choice but to threaten the aid eligibility of the California students, because the state both lacked its own "appropriate complaint process" and does not participate in the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which provides a workaround to the issue.

The consumer groups and faculty unions that have been at odds with the DeVos Education Department over the state rules, though, said the department should have given state officials (and students) more notice and seemed to be singling out California for punishment, since other states also lack a complaint process.

But there was widespread recognition that California had created its own problems to some extent, since its lack of a complaint process stems, in part, from the fact that it has not have a fully functioning state approval system since it ended its statewide coordinating board in 2011. It has also had significant upheaval in its mechanisms for overseeing for-profit colleges during the 2010s.

An Education Department spokeswoman late Monday said its officials are reviewing the California plan and "will continue to work with them in order to protect students." But the spokeswoman, Liz Hill, said she could not confirm that the California agency's new complaint system would put the state in compliance with the 2016 rules.

And she reiterated the department's view that in forcing the administration to implement the Obama state authorization rules, the National Education Association had put the California students in harm's way.

"In delaying the rule, the department had clearly articulated that states were not well positioned to implement it and that there would be severe consequences to students as a result," the department said in a news release Monday afternoon. "That led, among other things, to the department achieving a historic consensus in negotiated rule making on an amended state authorization rule that would address this and other problems in the 2016 rule. The NEA ignored that bipartisan agreement and instead pursued its litigation, resulting in today’s unfortunate circumstances."

"I urge the NEA to do the right thing and stop blocking the department’s efforts to delay the 2016 State Authorization Distance Education regulation so that students enrolled in distance education programs at nonprofit and public institutions may continue their education," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said.

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