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For-profit-college advocates and state regulators in Texas are taking on the U.S. Department of Education over its interpretation of federal rules for determining what classifies as a “clock hour” academic program.

Students typically qualify for fewer federal financial aid dollars when a college measures their academic progress on an actual clock rather than in credit hours. So the arcane legal definition of clock hour status can have big bottom-line repercussions for both students and colleges.

Degree programs generally use credit hours, as do most other credential tracks at colleges. Common exceptions are programs, like those of flight school credentials, truck driving certificates or cosmetology credentials, in which students earn a license that requires a certain number of real hours logged.

The Education Department, however, has given signals that it may take a hard line on clock hour, insiders said, which could prevent many programs from using credit hours. For example, a department official said in September that the rule could be applied to undergraduate degree and non-degree programs at for-profits, as well as non-degree tracks at nonprofit institutions. But whether community colleges or other nonprofits could actually take a hit is one of several murky, difficult-to-answer questions in the clock hour debate.

Brian Moran is executive vice president of government relations and general counsel for the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities. He said the for-profit trade group was frustrated by a “great deal of uncertainty” about the department’s position.

The Texas Workforce Commission apparently shares that frustration, adding an additional states’ rights friction to the fracas. The commission, which monitors college record-keeping as part of the state’s approval process for career-oriented academic programs, exchanged strongly-worded letters with the department over the interpretation of clock hour regulations.

“We understand that Education Department representatives have taken the position that under Texas law a career school or college is required to operate and measure time in clock hours,” the commission said in a January letter. “We believe that establishing the clock hour standard as a default position for Texas career schools and colleges runs counter to Texas laws and rules."

A department spokeswoman said the agency is working on a clarification of its position.

Broad Interpretation?

The definition of credit hour was one of the most hotly contested parts of the "program integrity" rules the department issued alongside "gainful employment" rules. Under those regulations, which went live last July, a credit hour is at least one hour per week in lecture and two hours on work outside class.

The regulations also spelled out when a college must use clock hour measurement, and how to convert clock hours to credit hours for the purpose of federal aid disbursement.

Behind the legalese, experts said, was a desire to better preserve each aid dollar and to be more consistent with rules for how colleges measure how much time students spend in class and on coursework.

But critics say the department has overstepped in its interpretation of the relatively straightforward rules on clock hour, both in the introductory text to the rule and in subsequent public statements.

“The department has taken a position that significantly alters and expands the impact of the regulation,” according to a legal memorandum the for-profit association submitted to the department.

The regulation states that a program gets the clock hour tag if a state requires the college to measure student progress in clock hours as a condition of state approval for the program. What the rule doesn’t say, according to for-profit advocates, is when states require clock hour tabulation for other purposes -- like record keeping -- that a program loses the option to measure in credit hours.

Put simply (if possible), a math course shouldn’t be treated like flight training just because the college tracks how much time students spend in their seats.

“This is particularly relevant in those states that require a school to list program length in clock and credit hours on the school’s or program’s application for approval,” the association’s lawyers wrote, “but issues the approval to the school in credit hours and permits the school to advertise its programs to students in credit hours.”

The department may be shorthanded on questions about credit hour with the recent retirement of Fred Sellers, who played a prominent role on those thorny issues.

Moran said his group is awaiting the department's response. “We just feel that the rule does not support this broad interpretation.”

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