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WASHINGTON -- The Education Department announced Friday that it would push back by a year the deadline for complying with a rule requiring states to authorize colleges within their borders, but did little to clarify a regulation that colleges and their representatives say is confusing and difficult to navigate. The new deadline is July 1, 2014.

The department’s state authorization rule, first released in 2010 as part of the package of "program integrity" regulations, is best-known for a provision that would have required distance education programs to get permission to operate from every state in which they enroll students. That provision was overturned in court and is not being enforced. But the rule also had two other sections, which detail the processes each state must follow to authorize its colleges to operate.

According to the rule, a college is considered legally authorized if it is mentioned by name in a charter or constitutional provision, or other action from a state agency -- meaning that most public institutions are automatically considered authorized. But if a college is recognized as a business or licensed nonprofit, the Education Department doesn’t consider that level of authorization sufficient to receive federal financial aid. States are also required to have a complaint process that students can follow if they’re displeased with an institution. States are responsible for submitting information on their approval and complaint processes to the Education Department.

The rule has frustrated colleges, in part because it holds them responsible -- by potentially withholding federal financial aid -- for the state’s level of scrutiny. The rule was intended to force states to step up on their side of the regulatory “triad” -- the combination of the federal government, accreditors and states that oversees American higher education.

“We are pleased that the Education Department has delayed the regulation,” Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed on Friday. “We understand their desire to have states play a more meaningful role but the reality is that not all states are anxious to do that.”

In a notice Friday, the department announced it would push back enforcing the regulation by a year, until July 1, 2014. By then, colleges must be in compliance with regulations the Education Department considers sufficient.

The rule has proved confusing, since it’s difficult for colleges to figure out whether they are considered licensed under regulations that the Education Department deems sufficient. Some community colleges aren’t established by state law, said Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. And some of the oldest universities, including Harvard, were created before the states they’re in even existed. The result has been confusion.

Poulin said he was glad that the department was delaying enforcement of the regulation, but that institutions were hoping for more clarifications and guidance -- which Friday's notice did not provide.

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