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The War Against The Young: White House Fights Distance Learning

By cracking down on the for-profit college industry, ostensibly to protect students from shoddy degree programs, the Obama administration has made it virtually impossible for small colleges to offer online programs. An article in Minding the Campus explains how the Department of Education “issued a regulation last October requiring institutions offering Internet classes to seek permission from every state in which they enroll so much as a single student.”

That’s every single state wherever students are enrolled in an online course. The article continues:

But the department failed to take one crucial fact into account: This is the 21st century, and Web-based courses aren’t just a dodge employed by educational hustlers to lure masses of gullible students into cheap, shoddy programs of the kind that used to be advertised on matchbooks.

It is the smaller and more budget-pinched…institutions that are feeling the brunt of the education department’s new rule: liberal-arts schools with limited administration personnel and cash-strapped state universities and community colleges. Some of those, citing the high costs of complying with 50 different sets of state licensing criteria plus stiff licensing fees in some states, already have plans to stop accepting online students living in the more expensive jurisdictions.

Most colleges…likely won’t have the resources to thread their way through a maze of time-consuming authorizations now that the regulatory cat is out of the bag. Humble community colleges and small liberal-arts institutions may find themselves paying a steep price for the Education Department’s war against for-profits.

It is perhaps an unintended consequence of a well-meaning initiative — ensure that students enrolled in for-profit colleges are not conned into unpayable loans and worthless degrees — but there is no reason to make war on distance learning like this. By forcing colleges, including small and underfunded ones, to pay steep fees and get bogged down in an endless bureaucratic nightmare in order to offer courses online, the Obama administration has made distance learning virtually impossible for many higher education institutions.

In this age of increased connectivity, online courses have become a worthwhile tool in higher education. At a time when exploding higher education costs threaten to price young people out of college — or saddle them with onerous debts — measures that can cut the cost of education should be promoted, not penalized.

In the war against the young, can’t we just give peace a chance?

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  • Rick Caird

    Another reason why a Federal Department of Education should not exist. If a state wanted that level of control, it could pass its own legislation and [make life difficult for] its own students. There is no need for a Federal rule.

  • Corlyss

    Accustomed as I am to looking for and finding the worm in every Democratic/Lib/Progressive idea intended ostensibly to protect someone from bad guys, I would be willing to bet cash money that the real driver behind the feds’ crackdown on distance learning has more to do with the competition distance learning poses for tradtional colleges with their tenured hangers-on, their brick and mortar facilities, and their hi-powered athletic programs. As college becomes increasingly unaffordable, even with a student loan, more universities will have to let staff go. Quel horror! So to the extent that the feds can drive students into inconvenient institutions, or onto the unemployment rolls (since education is often the first place people flee when they can’t get a job or lose one), the more tenured jobs can be saved.

  • Anthony

    “In at least one way, the rule has already accomplished the department’s goal of applying more scrutiny to institutions whose students receive federal financial aid. It has drawn attention to state regulations and authorization requirements that were previously overlooked, or ignored by all parties.” So, rule brings light to online course abuse by for profit colleges using connectivity to undergird profits at expense of uninformed youngsters. Indeed, on line courses are worthwhile and searching for balance (state/federal) vis-a-vis proprietary colleges and traditional institutions before 2014 rule implementation serves interest of young – and we must keep interest of young college (distance or otherwise) learners in forefront.

  • Corlyss

    The feds treat for-profit schools, home-schooling, and religious schools like they have treated services that compete with the Post Office: delegitimize, crush, smear, and, if possible, sue for fraud and hopefully put their founders in jail.

  • Luke Lea

    Sounds in violation of commerce clause or something like that. Federal government not regulating but just plain interfering in interstate commerce? I’m no lawyer, obviously, but I bet it don’t pass constitutional muster.

  • Luke Lea

    BTW, there is plenty of free, first-rate college-level course material up on the web from many sources, most famously MIT’s open course program. The key reform would be if you could pass an exam demonstrating mastery and/or aptitude within a certain body of knowledge, and thereby gain certification. This is essentially the way Lincoln became a lawyer– you just had to pass the bar exam back then, even if you studied under a tree.

    Every profession is a conspiracy against the public, George Bernard Shaw once observed. Credentials may be necessary in a complex society, obviously they are, but they don’t have to be expensive.

  • andrei rădulescu-banu

    Walter, your point is well taken, it is ridiculous to require distance learning programs to comply with requirements in 50 states. But that is not the entire story. The logical solution would be to institute and require compliance with new federal distance learning requirements.

    But somehow I have the impression you’d be opposed to that, because you don’t like the federal govt involved if you can avoid it. So my question to you is: what do you propose should be done to solve this?

  • W

    I share the skepticism about regulating education programs. No Child Left Behind is bad enough at the K-12 level, and it would add costs and complexities to higher education without providing any benefit at all. Indeed, it could help dumb-down successful programs. But I am also very suspicious of “online” education. Many subjects, including vocationals ones, require hands-on activity both to teach and demonstrate learning. That doesn’t work online. Humanites subjects done properly require intensitve writing and discussion that works better in a face-to-face process. Online courses easily lapse into multiple choice and fill-in the blank assingments that serious programs don’t use. What you have is technology facilitating the kind of mass courses taught to 300 student lectures that offer the cheap version of education at brick and mortar colleges.

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