Extend financial aid to cover more alternative education programs, groups say

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Despite a surge of regulations in the 1980s designed to prevent fraudulent use of financial aid funds for online courses, the Department of Education still struggles to balance consumer protections with a growing need for short-term and distance education to offer student aid, according to a report released Wednesday by higher education policy advocates.

The report — authored by the Online Learning Consortium, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association — argues that education policies are failing to support a rapidly evolving higher education system.

“The nature of higher education, especially credentialing programs, has significantly changed in the last two decades,” the report reads. Yet a chief obstacle to the accessibility of such programs, it says, is the lack of federal financial aid available.

To inform policymakers of the modernizations that higher education regulations need, the groups have collaborated on a series of policy briefs. The topics addressed by the papers — aimed at informing discussions currently underway at the Department of Education in its rule-making session — include competency-based education, financial aid for the 21st-century student, regular and substantive interaction, and state authorization.

The rapid development of online courses in the 1980s led to a string of fraudulent claims on federal financial aid, the report says, which prompted lawmakers to strictly regulate the types of educational programs financial aid could go to. Under the 1998 Higher Education Act, which is still in effect, a program’s eligibility for financial aid is determined by the duration of the program and the number of credit hours offered, putting short-term credentialing programs at a disadvantage to receive funding, the report’s authors claim.

However, as more students pursue online or competency-based education programs, the report claims, financial aid regulations should be modernized by extending aid coverage to include alternative education programs – ultimately expanding affordable educational access.

In a press statement accompanying the report’s release, Michael Abbiatti, executive director of WCET, said it is crucial that modern education programs are “supported by a policy environment that enables and empowers all learner communities to access and receive quality curated digital content and associated credentials in an affordable manner.”