Chris Mitchell (red shirt) and Joey Kopp (white shirt)  work on computers Wednesday at the Central Texas College Library. Federal regulations require colleges to acquire authorization from every state in which they offer distance-learning or online programs, and the Killeen community college is working to comply. Central Texas College has operations in 35 states. The school’s chancellor says the process is complicated because each state has its own procedures for obtaining authorization.

By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald

Central Texas College is grappling with federal regulations that present obstacles for colleges with distance-learning programs in multiple states.

Chancellor Tom Klincar raised concerns over a U.S. Department of Education rule that requires institutions to seek authorization to do out-of-state business in states that house their distance and online learning programs.

“It’s an important issue, and it has a direct impact on colleges like CTC, which have students all over the county,” Klincar said.

Students cannot use federal student aid for a program if the institution does not have state authorization, according to regulations published in October 2010.

The regulations are part of a mandate from the federal Higher Education Opportunities Act of 2008 — a broad piece of legislation originally crafted in 1965 that set regulations to protect students and federal dollars used to pay for tuition.

Congress created the act to protect students, and steer them away from schools that would take advantage of them, said Klincar. “But it had some unintended consequences.”

According to the regulations, which were clarified by the department last spring, the task of authorizing colleges to operate distance-learning programs will fall to each state.

“What we are looking at is the possibility of 50 different sets of criteria and processes,” said Dana Watson, the college’s deputy chancellor of educational program and support services.

Central Texas College has about 75,000 students worldwide. Only about 3,400 attend classes at the Killeen and Fort Hood campuses, making the vast majority distance learners. Currently, the college operates in 35 states.

The complexity of the approval process ranges from easy — Texas only requires the state Board of Higher Education be notified — to time-consuming and expensive — such as the long process set up by North Carolina.

“They have a very detailed, prolonged process,” said Watson. “To get the approval, it is going to take a significant amount of man hours and resources, just for one state.”

In addition, colleges must seek approval from states no matter how many students are enrolled.

“In places like North Carolina, we may have up to 2,500 students,” said Klincar. “In others, there’s just a handful.”

Klincar worries the regulations could limit choices for students taking both in-state and out-of-state classes.

Many states are still deciding how to license colleges, leaving institutions to wait and see what the overall cost of operating their distance-learning programs will be.

“As soon as the guidelines came out, we immediately began contacting each state,” said Klincar. “The reality is that some have the criteria set and some do not. They are still grappling with making the transition.”

At the same time, the deadline to comply with the mandate is approaching.

Colleges have until July to meet the requirements unless they apply for an extension, which would give schools until July 2013 to complete the authorization process.

Klincar said he plans to bring up the issues surrounding the regulations with the board of trustees at its next meeting on March 15. He said the best bet for changing the regulations would be to encourage federal lawmakers to urge states to work together.

“If the states can come together and develop a set of standardized procedures, I think it would go a long way toward solving the problem,” Klincar said.