Baker's Guide to Christian Online Learning

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State Authorization Musings

Despite near uniform opposition from all sectors of higher education, the latest Dear Colleague letters from the Department of Education continue the march toward requiring online learning providers to secure state authorization anywhere they have students.

Specifically, the requirement reads:

"If an institution is offering postsecondary education through distance or correspondence education to students in a State in which it is not physically located or in which it is otherwise subject to State jurisdiction as determined by the State, the institution must meet any State requirements for it to be legally offering distance or correspondence education in that State. An institution must be able to document to the Secretary the State's approval upon request."

I attended a webinar sponsored by the National Association of College and University Attorneys entitled Required Institutional State Authorizations: Compliance with the Department of Education Program Integrity Rule. It was quite interesting but there really were more questions than answers (particularly in the distance education requirements) and there's a strong belief that the whole effort borders on being unconstitutional and conflates state control of education with federal student financial aid programs. This is why there's clearly a two pronged approach: 1) fight the regulations in hopes of overturning or at least delaying them and 2) prepare a good faith response just to be safe.

For Christian colleges and seminaries, the definition of a religious institution for the purpose of home state authorization is that it's owned, controlled, operated, and maintained by a religious organization lawfully operating as a nonprofit religious corporation and it awards only religious degrees or certificates. In addition to potential differences among the organizational configuration of institutions, particularly those not associated with a church or denomination, things get confusing if the institution also offers non-religious degrees.  This CCCU post offers a brief discussion of how the March 17th Dear Colleague letter adds to the uncertainty over the scope of religious exemption. The recent April 20th Dear Colleague letter doesn't address this issue.  Accordingly, Christian schools should be cautious before assuming that they're necessarily exempt from these regulatory requirements.

At least the most recent Dear Colleague letter offered some breathing room by noting light enforcing over the next three years as long as schools are making a good faith effort to comply.  Arguably this merely moves the drop dead date from July 1, 2011 to July 1, 2014.

There are some excellent resources online to assist institutions with this challenge:







Defining E-Learning: Whose Definition is Correct?
Computer Science Courses and Online Education

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