Distance Education:

Improved Data on Program Costs and Guidelines on Quality Assessments Needed to Inform Federal Policy

GAO-04-279: Published: Feb 26, 2004. Publicly Released: Feb 26, 2004.

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Distance education--that is, offering courses by Internet, video, or other forms outside the classroom--has changed considerably in recent years and is a growing force in postsecondary education. More than a decade ago, concerns about fraud and abuse by some correspondence schools led to federal restrictions on, among other things, the percentage of courses a school could provide by distance education and still qualify for federal student aid. Given the recent changes in distance education, GAO was asked to review the extent to which the restrictions affect schools' ability to offer federal student aid and the Department of Education's assessment of the continued appropriateness of the restrictions. Additionally, GAO was asked to look at the extent to which accrediting agencies evaluate distance education programs, including their approach for assessing student outcomes.

While federal restrictions on the size of distance education programs affect only a small number of schools' ability to offer federal student aid, the growing popularity of distance education could cause the number to increase in the future. GAO found that 14 schools were either now adversely affected by the restrictions or would be affected in the future; collectively, these schools serve nearly 225,000 students. Eight of these schools, however, will remain eligible to offer federal student aid because they have been granted waivers from the restrictions by Education. Education granted the waivers as part of a program aimed at assessing the continued appropriateness of the restrictions given the changing face of distance education. In considering the appropriateness of the restrictions, there are several policy options for amending the restrictions; however, amending the restrictions to improve access would likely increase the cost of the federal student aid programs. One way to further understand the effect of amending the restrictions would be to study data on the cost of granting the waivers to schools, but Education has yet to develop this information. The seven accrediting agencies GAO reviewed varied in the extent to which they included distance education programs in their reviews of postsecondary institutions. All seven agencies had developed policies for reviewing these programs; however, there were differences in how and when they reviewed the programs. Agencies also differed in the extent to which they included an assessment of student outcomes in their reviews. GAO's work in examining how organizations successfully focus on outcomes shows that they do so by (1) setting measurable goals for program outcomes, (2) developing strategies for meeting these goals, and (3) disclosing the results of their efforts to the public. Measured against this approach, only one of the seven accrediting agencies we reviewed had policies that require schools to satisfy all three components. As the key federal link to the accreditation community, Education could play a pivotal role in encouraging an outcomes-based model.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2005, Education submitted to Congress an estimate of the cost of eliminating the 50 percent rules for distance education in its third report to Congress on the Distance Education Demonstration Program. Specifically, Education estimates that the cost of eliminating the 50 percent rules for distance education would be $697 million over ten years, beginning July 1, 2006. This estimate includes $94 million in mandatory funding for the costs of subsidies for approximately $1 billion in loans, and $603 million in discretionary funding for the cost of Pell Grants. According to Education, this estimate reflects the possible expansion of Title IV eligibility to institutions that are accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council.

    Recommendation: To better inform federal policymakers, the Secretary of Education should include data in future Demonstration Program reports on the potential cost to the federal student aid programs of waiving the 50-percent rules.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2006, the Office of Postsecondary Education developed guidance for staff in the Accreditation and State Liaison Unit to use in evaluating accrediting agency reviews of distance education. The information gathered from discussions with representatives of all regional accrediting agencies and 5 of the 10 national accrediting agencies on how they are evaluating distance education was used to develop the guidance. The guidance is organized into best practices and red flags and was developed in a manner that is sensitive to the Department's limited authority to regulate accrediting agencies. The guidance has been shared with the accreditation community and the Department does not find it necessary to request that Congress require accrediting agencies to use the guidance in their accreditation efforts.

    Recommendation: To enhance oversight of distance education quality, the Secretary of Education should develop, with the help of accrediting agencies and schools, guidelines or a mutual understanding for more consistent and thorough assessment of distance education programs, including developing evaluative components for holding schools accountable for such outcomes. The Secretary of Education should also, if necessary, request authority from the Congress to require that accrediting agencies use these guidelines in their accreditation efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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