Deadlock over protection for US online college students

Battling to protect online institutions, Trump administration raises risk to student dollars

July 30, 2019
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The Trump administration is persisting in its battle to protect online colleges from fraud complaints brought by their students, arguing that a lawsuit designed to help such learners will actually harm them.

The case stems from a 2016 regulatory change by the Obama administration that required each state to create a process for handling student complaints about online colleges that are based in other states.

The Trump administration opposed the idea and did not implement the regulatory requirement when it was due to take effect last year. Meanwhile California had not joined a nationwide system of reciprocity agreements for handling complaints about out-of-state non-profit institutions, calling its student protections too weak.

A federal judge ruled this year against the Trump administration, ordering it to comply with the Obama-era rules. The Trump administration baulked again, saying that California’s lack of a process for handling the complaints would mandate the cutting of federal aid eligibility for tens of thousands of online students living in California.

California’s Department of Consumer Affairs said that it resolved the matter on 29 July by creating a complaint system for such students. “We are committed to ensuring students are protected and that we are both in full compliance and responsive,” the agency’s chief deputy director, Christopher Shultz, said.

But the US secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, issued her own statement saying that “not all states have the required complaint processes or interstate agreements in place”, leaving some students under the threat of losing their federal financial aid.

Ms DeVos did not identify any such states.

The lawsuit that led to the court order requiring the Trump administration to implement the Obama-era regulations was brought by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.

Announcing the lawsuit last year, the NEA's president, Lily Eskelsen García, called the Trump administration’s reluctance to implement the regulations its “latest brazen attack on student rights”. The NEA said that it wanted the Obama-era regulations implemented to protect students from low-quality online teaching instruction programmes.

Ms DeVos, in her statement, called the NEA lawsuit an attempt to “score political points” that ignored the fact that some states are “not well positioned” to handle cross-state complaints.

The nation’s top higher education lobby group, the American Council on Education, pleaded with the Education Department to quickly end the uncertainty for students, given that the new academic year starts soon.

The group said that the department, if it rejects California’s new system for handling student complaints about out-of-state online colleges, should either implement its own new regulations or appeal its loss in the NEA case.

The time of year “makes a quick resolution critical”, ACE said.

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