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Highlights

As the largest provider of financial aid in higher education, with about $134 billion in Title IV funds provided to students in fiscal year 2010, the Department of Education (Education) has a considerable interest in distance education. Distance education--that is, offering courses by the Internet, video, or other forms outside the classroom--has been a growing force in postsecondary education and there are questions about quality and adequate oversight. GAO was asked to determine (1) the characteristics of distance education today, (2) the characteristics of students participating in distance education, (3) how the quality of distance education is being assessed, and (4) how Education monitors distance education in its stewardship of federal student aid funds. GAO reviewed federal laws and regulations, analyzed Education data and documents, and interviewed Education officials and industry experts. GAO also interviewed officials from accrediting and state agencies, as well as 20 schools--which were selected based on a variety of factors to represent diverse perspectives.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Education To help Education strengthen its oversight of distance education, the Secretary of Education should direct FSA to develop a plan on how best to use the new IPEDS distance education data and provide input to NCES on future IPEDS survey work with regard to distance education.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

Education agreed with our recommendation and stated that its Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) will update its School Participation Team procedures to include consideration of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data on distance education for monitoring schools. Education also stated that FSA will provide input to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on the design and results of any future IPEDS surveys that include distance education. As of 2012, FSA updated the procedures, developed a form to capture the information, and provided input to NCES on its IPEDS 2012-2013 distance education survey results.

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