Online Colleges as a Policy Bloc?

With tension of for-profit scrutiny in the air, leaders of online institutions convene in Washington to fret over state, federal oversight.
October 13, 2010

WASHINGTON -- For-profit colleges in one camp and everyone else in another may be the prevailing theme of higher education policy this fall, but online institutions, regardless of their tax status, were all in one camp Tuesday at a discussion of the challenges they face in proving quality and value while offering a kind of learning that's very different from the hidebound practices of traditional colleges and universities.

The dominant concern coming from the leaders of online programs at the seventh meeting of the Presidents’ Forum -- a group of institutions that serve adult students primarily online -- was proving they offer quality and value as the U.S. Department of Education and Congress begin roundabout efforts to measure those things.

“We need to again use better data to make our case … to tell our story in credible ways,” said Margaret Spellings, who served as secretary of education during George W. Bush’s second term. She is now senior adviser to the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and consults for Education Management Corporation. “We’re seen as wild-eyed, often profit-making, the wild west of higher education, and often don’t get credit for what we do.”

The challenge of finding the right data to collect to get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t resurfaced throughout the daylong meeting, but there was little talk of exactly what those data should be. Gordon Freedman, vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, suggested that analytic data from students’ interactions with his company’s products and other learning management systems could be a good place to start. Mark David Milliron, deputy director for postsecondary improvement at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also pointed to better use of the data gleaned by online learning as a means for identifying struggling students and measuring outcomes.

At the core of the push for more data are the bigger goals that foundations, the Obama administration and business leaders have set out for higher education, said John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, a private nonprofit New York institution that specializes in serving adult learners online. The forum and its members, he said, hope to take a leadership role to “try and address this issue of degree completion, as we try and address the issues of access, quality and accountability.”

During a panel on state regulation, some consensus emerged that states ought to do a better job collaborating and developing reciprocity agreements, both with one another and with accreditors. Some states, like Wisconsin, consider online institutions based in other states but serving their residents to fall under their regulatory purview, while others, like New York, require state oversight only of institutions with a physical presence there.

Regulators and online programs could make progress, said Byron Connell, associate in higher education at the New York State Education Department, by “trying to identify core information” that institutions need to gain state approval. “Each of us has our own set of information requirements, most of which are similar, and it ought to be possible to develop a multi-state common set of information requirements, so that if an institution needs to apply to a state individually it doesn’t have to fill out a unique set of forms.”

At another panel, Charles S. Lenth, vice president for policy analysis and academic affairs for the State Higher Education Executive Officers, said the challenge states face is even more basic than attempting to cooperate on program approval. “We can take some important steps just to set up mechanisms that provide, if not a welcome mat, at least a place to go for information about who at the state level does what and why,” he said. “And you might think that’s an unnecessary step. I happen to believe that it would be a first step toward resolving these issues.”

Simplifying the puzzle of 50 states with distinct sets of data requirements and regulatory frameworks has been one of the Presidents’ Forum’s key objectives since its founding. While still a priority -- more than a dozen states are working together with the help of a Lumina Foundation grant -- sorting out state regulation has taken a backseat to the federal government’s new efforts toward oversight of higher education.

“The feds, I think quite frankly, have lost faith in the triad” -- the regulatory triangle involving the federal government, the states, and accrediting agencies -- said David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, who spent six years as the Clinton administration’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education. “While it still exists, they’re relying much less heavily on the states for consumer protection, the accreditors for quality assurance.”

The result, he said, is heightened scrutiny from Washington. “It’s not because they’ve gone nutso on regulation. I think they’ve just lost faith in their partners…. And it’s legitimate because we don’t have a reasonable standards-based system today.”

Not everyone was quite as enthusiastic about the push for greater oversight coming from the Obama administration and Congress. The Education Department’s proposed regulations on “gainful employment” -- due to be published in two parts, one by Nov. 1 and the other probably early next year, following meetings and hearings with stakeholders – came up several times throughout the day’s conversation.

The rules and the department’s general direction, said Spellings, are “really interesting and … the subject of some great cocktail party conversation in Washington these days.”

She added: “It does seem like it came from a place different from where every secretary of education, Republican and Democrat alike, had been with respect to that quasi-arcane part of the law,” referring to the “gainful employment” language in the Higher Education Act. “In my mind, this is a skirmish in the overall war. There will be other issues…. It’s the wrong issue at the wrong time, in my view.”

Instead, she and several others said, Washington’s focus ought to be on better facilitating access and completion.

“Gainful employment has gotten as far as it has because it is focused on the for-profit sector,” said Holly Kuzmich, vice president of Margaret Spellings and Company, who filled several roles in Spellings’ Education Department.

Jennifer Blum, a partner at the Washington law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath, said that with issues like the Education Department’s forthcoming regulations on credit hours, an institution’s tax status isn’t relevant. But Russell S. Kitchner, associate vice president for regulatory and governmental relations at the American Public University System, said her view was relevant only if politicians were excluded from the equation. “If a politician wants to make it relevant, it is. And there are very strong political movements in Congress to make irrelevant points relevant and I think we have to recognize that.”

And Ebersole, of Excelsior, expressed concern that online programs would be lumped in with the egregious examples highlighted by the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“We all, I think, have to agree there is some bias against for-profits,” he said. “I think that our coming together, talking together, working together -- profit, not-for-profit -- is one of the ways that perhaps we can soften [the conflict] because those of us who work alongside our for-profit brothers know that in fact there is much good work being done.”

He added: “We worry that [when] someone catch[es] a cold, we get the flu. So we care about how online learning is being perceived in the marketplace, regardless of the corporate structure of the institution providing it.”


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