Higher Ed Officials Struggle to Adjust as New Federal Distance Learning Rules are Rolled Out

The Alabama State Reciprocity Committee convened on Wednesday to discuss the potential implications of revised federal regulations on distance learning.

This committee, which deals with higher education matters, focuses on addressing State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA) in Alabama. SARA was established in 2013 with the goal of streamlining regulations surrounding distance learning opportunities from the U.S. Department of Education. The committee consists of representatives from two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

During Wednesday’s session, the committee primarily focused on recent changes made to increase federal oversight over higher education institutions.

These changes were implemented through the negotiated rulemaking process, which involves representatives from parties significantly affected by higher education changes working with the Department of Education to reach a consensus.

The new regulations are set to take effect on July 1.

Heather Hall, the dean of the college of nursing at the University of South Alabama, expressed concerns about the new requirement for clinical work placements to be made within 45 days and within a reasonable distance. She noted that these requirements could be more challenging for specialized fields.

“If there isn’t a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) located within a reasonable geographic area, then that would be acceptable because it’s highly specialized,” she explained. “However, there is a time limit on using this exception. Eventually, we run out of reasons why we’re sending students so far from one state to another or across the state for clinical placements.”

The Department of Education stated that these requirements would not apply to post-graduation obligations, such as medical residencies.

Hall also mentioned that the increased reporting requirements for tracking placements would necessitate additional staff. She emphasized that a student declining a placement does not exempt the school from the 45-day requirement.

“Everything needs to be documented,” she stated. “We must ensure compliance and act swiftly to ensure our students are placed.”

Tonjanita Johnson, the senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at the University of Alabama System, revealed that staff members have expressed a desire for a centralized system to manage the required information.

“Understanding the resources that may be necessary would be beneficial, I’m sure, not only for those of us at this table but for others as well,” she remarked.

Ron Leonard, the director of special operations at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, believes that joining the State Authorization Network could assist colleges in keeping up with changing federal regulations.

“The network stays on top of federal and state regulations,” he explained. “As mentioned earlier, so much is happening, and it’s difficult for individuals to keep pace.”

According to the State Authorization Network’s website, they provide training, support, and opportunities for institutions to collaborate in navigating regulatory requirements for out-of-state activities.

Leonard disclosed that they have applied for a grant for membership. If only a small number of institutions express interest in joining, the cost will likely be covered. However, if all institutions want to join, there will be a discounted cost. He mentioned that some institutions in the state have already become members.

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