For the first time, the US government has agreed to make tuition assistance available for degree-seeking students enrolled on distance-learning programmes.
The decision reverses a policy under which students attending schools that offered more than half its courses via distance learning were ineligible for such aid. Even now, only students of a select group of certifiably legitimate distance-learning providers will be eligible.
Education secretary Richard Riley said: "Recent advances in technology have resulted in a spectacular growth in distance education, and present us with a two-fold challenge: to ensure that students pursuing high-quality distance-learning programmes have access to federal student aid and to ensure the integrity of the federal student-aid programmes."
Previous reluctance to provide government-backed educational loans to such students stemmed from allegations of scholarship fraud. The 15 institutions in the pilot programme will be closely monitored over five years. After three years, more may be added.
The first set of eligible schools includes several consortia of public community colleges, such as Florida State University, the University of Maryland, Washington State University, New York University, the North Dakota University System, Western Governors University, the Mormon Church.
Traditional independent universities opposed making federal aid available to distance learners. An association of these institutions has threatened to sue over the decision. It said changing the rules to allow for such aid opens the door for institutions to get federal money for nonexistent education.
A US department of education study found that more than 750,000 students were enrolled on distance-learning programmes in 1995, the last year for which figures are available.