Archived Information

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act


Distance Learning and the Higher Education Act:

Making College Easier and More Affordable to Attend

In its proposal for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the Administration is seeking to broaden opportunities for distance learners by expanding eligibility for student aid and encouraging innovative uses of technology by institutions and other education providers, while ensuring the integrity of these courses and programs. These proposals reflect changing demographics in postsecondary education and new ways institutions are delivering higher education, while ensuring that students get what they pay for and taxpayer dollars are well spent.

According to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1995, 33% of all higher education institutions offered distance education to more than 700,000 students, and the interest in providing technology-based education continues to grow rapidly. Institutions are examining new ways to reach out to students, including working parents, workers that seek additional training to advance, and students with disabilities. Distance learning provides opportunities to individuals who face such time and place constraints. The Administration will also pursue different ways -- including working closely with accrediting agencies and State licensing agencies -- to learn more about distance education and to gain experience in effectively managing and monitoring the student aid programs in a technology-based learning environment.

Student Aid (Title IV) Proposal

The Administration's reauthorization proposal for distance education broadens opportunities for distance learners by expanding institutional and student aid eligibility, eliminating the different treatments in cost of attendance between distance learners and on-campus learners, while ensuring quality through accreditation. Specifically, the Administration is proposing to:

  1. Expand Title IV student aid eligibility for students in distance learning by removing the 50 percent limitation and restriction at degree-granting institutions. Currently, institutions that offer more than 50 percent of their courses by distance or have more than 50 percent of their students as distance learners are ineligible to participate in the Title IV student aid programs. Under the Administration's proposal, only non-degree granting institutions (i.e. institutions that do not offer at least one degree program) would remain subject to the current requirements regarding eligibility. Expanding, at this time, institutional eligibility at degree-granting institutions only is a cautious approach that provides greater assurance that the distance programs will be high quality and serve students well.

  2. Eliminate the differences in cost of attendance treatments between distance learners and on-campus learners. Currently, dependent and independent students living off-campus who are enrolled at least half-time in an eligible program receive an annual living allowance for room and board costs of no less than $1500 and $2500, respectively. The Administration's proposal would allow distance learners (who are enrolled at least half time) to include a living allowance in their need determination, just as the law already allows for students who live at home. This approach is appropriate in light of the societal benefits that result from an educated population regardless of whether the student attends a residential-based institution or completes a program from a distance. In addition, the Administration is proposing to allow the cost of equipment, including computers, to be included in a distance learner's cost of attendance. Currently, students receiving all or part of their instruction through distance are unable to include the cost of equipment in their cost of attendance.

    As noted above, a student must be enrolled at least half-time in order to include the living allowance in the need determination. The Administration is not proposing any change to this requirement. In other words, a student enrolled in only one course would not be provided a living allowance regardless of whether the student took the course by distance or on-campus.

    For example, Mary has income of $5,000, lives at home and takes classes full-time at the local community college. Alice also lives at home, has the same income, is enrolled in the same program, but takes all of her classes over the Internet. Both Mary and Alice are dependent students and there is no contribution from their parents' income or assets in the determination of need. Tuition and other education expenses for both students is $1,500. For the 1998-99 award year,, Mary would be eligible for a $2,750 Pell Grant while Alice would only be eligible for a $1,300 Pell Grant. The difference reflects the fact that Mary is allowed a $1,500 cost of living allowance in her aid calculation while Alice -- because she is a distance learner -- is not. Under the Department's proposal, Alice would be eligible for a $2,750 Pell Grant, the same amount as Mary.

  3. Ensure accountability of distance learning courses and programs through accreditation by requiring accrediting agencies to have specific distance learning standards that, at a minimum, address issues related to the institution's criteria for (1) selecting students to participate in distance learning, (2) monitoring student progress, (3) the academic and student support services available to students, and (4) measuring student outcomes. Currently, accrediting agencies are required to assess the quality of an institution by examining, among other things, the institution's curricula, faculty, facilities, student support services, default rates, and success with respect to student achievement in relation to its mission, including as appropriate, job placement rates, completion rates, and professional licensing exam pass rates. The Administration's reauthorization proposal would further require accrediting agencies to have specific standards on distance learning programs or courses at an institution.

  4. Provide the Secretary with the authority to respond where appropriate to distance learning after more knowledge and experience is gained in this area. For example, the current provisions for academic year and program length may not apply in the distance learning arena; the proposal would allow the Secretary to respond accordingly where other alternative measures may be more appropriate. The Secretary could exercise this authority and remove regulations that do not make sense for distance learning models and change or replace them with ones that are more tailored and address the unique characteristics of distance learning.

  5. Authorize an independent study to examine the effectiveness of accrediting agencies and associations in developing and enforcing the distance learning standards described in the proposed new section 111(a)(5) of the Act. This would provide the Secretary and the Congress with more information about this developing area of technology and its impact on the HEA programs, and thereby help to ensure accountability in the field of distance learning.

Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships

In addition, the Administration is proposing a new $30 million competitive grant program that would support pilot projects using distance learning technologies and other innovations to enhance the delivery of postsecondary education and lifelong learning opportunities to students of all ages. The Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnership Program would encourage partnerships between educational institutions (including four-year institutions, community colleges, technical institutes, adult literacy and education programs, and regional vocational/technical schools that serve adults), community-based organizations, software and technology developers, learning assessment specialists, and private industry employers in an effort to deliver a valuable and quality education to a variety of different kinds of students who face time and place constraints. Projects in this initiative will emphasize the development of innovative ways to ensure quality and measure student achievement that are appropriate to distance education.

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