Government Affairs

Policy Matters | Department of Ed Issues Final Rule on Distance Learning, “Regular and Substantive” and Competency-Based Education (August 2020)

August 27, 2020

Major Updates 

  • Department of Ed Issues Final Rule on Distance Learning, “Regular and Substantive” and Competency-Based Education
    On August 24th, following the comprehensive 2018-2019 Negotiated Rulemaking session and the additional public comments from organizations such as UPCEA and its partners in the National Council for Online Education on the proposed regulations this past spring, the Department of Education has released final rules. These regulation changes include distance education, “regular and substantive” interaction, Competency-Based Education (CBE), direct assessment, and other topics. The proposed changes and response to comments are extensive, but we wish to highlight a few that we believe our UPCEA community would be interested in: 
    • Clarity on “regular” and “substantive” definitional aspects of “regular and substantive interaction” for distance education:
      • For “substantive” the action must engage students in teaching, learning, and assessment, as well as two of these five actions: providing direct instruction; assessing or providing feedback on a student’s course work; providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.
      • For “regular” interaction, the original draft proposed language (“regular and predictable basis”) which UPCEA and others found problematic was changed to the final regulatory wording of “scheduled and predictable basis” to remove any confusion associated with  the term “regular.”  
      • Clarifies that requirements for regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students occur at the course or competency level 
  • Changing of “clock hour” definition to express that a clock hour includes a synchronous or asynchronous class, lecture, or recitation where there is an opportunity for direct interaction between instructors and students 
  • Clarification of Virtual/Augmented reality fulfilling expectations of “Academic Engagement” 
  • Providing more flexibility for a focus on learning, rather than seat time, in evaluating CBE and distance education 
  • Clarifying Distance Education and Correspondence Education
    • Defining more clearly the differences between what is correspondence education from distance education based on:
      “The institution’s online instruction is delivered through an appropriate form of media; The instructors with whom students regularly and substantively interact meet the requirements of the institution’s accrediting agency for instruction in the subject matter; Instructors engage in at least two forms of substantive interaction meeting the regulatory requirements for the course or competency; The institution has established scheduled and predictable opportunities for substantive interaction between students and instructors and create expectations for instructors to monitor each student’s engagement and substantively engage with students on the basis of that monitoring; and Instructors are responsive to students’ requests for instructional support.”


    • Providing flexibility for Direct Assessment programs 
      • An institution will only need to put its first direct assessment program in any degree level through Departmental approval 
  • Providing a structure for subscription-based models to interact with financial aid disbursement


These changes take effect July 1, 2021; however, the early implementation of any or all of the changes is allowed.


Click here to view the Department’s Fact Sheet on the changes.


Click here to view the full draft regulations.

  • Trump Issues Memorandum on Student Aid Relief Extension To End of Year
    As part of a response to the ongoing stalled talks on COVID-19 relief legislation from Congress, President Trump declared multiple executive actions. While many of these actions were seen by critics being on shaky ground from a legal perspective, the one memorandum which is not expected to see pushback is the one surrounding student aid relief. The Department of Education has already implemented the memorandum, and Federal Student Aid (FSA) has extended the student loan relief to borrowers initiated by the President and Secretary in March 2020 through December 31, 2020. All student loans that are federally held will have their payments automatically suspended until 2021 without penalty. In addition, there will be a 0% interest rate on these loans through the end of the calendar year. Some critics have called it “insufficient” while others are worried how the actions might quell congressional funding for colleges.

Other News

  • New Grant Opportunity from US Dept of Ed for Colleges Affected by COVID-19
    The U.S. Department of Education has recently announced a grant program to help colleges and universities “emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic more resilient and expand educational opportunities for students.” The deadline for notice of intent to apply is September 10, 2020, and the application date deadline is October 20, 2020. More information on the program is included below:

    “Priority for grant awards will be given to colleges and universities with the greatest unmet needs related to COVID-19. In addition, proposals will receive additional consideration if they:
  1. Provide Dual Enrollment Opportunities to Students Who Live or Attend School in a Rural Community or Opportunity Zone:
  2. Are led by, or include as partners, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges, minority serving institutions (MSIs), and/or developing institutions that are eligible to participate in Title III or Title V programs; and/or
  3. Are committed to developing more resilient instructional delivery models, such as distance learning, that make learning possible even when students cannot be physically present on campus for any reason.”

Learn more about these grant opportunities and apply

Deadline Time for New Federal Sexual Assault Policies (Inside Higher Ed)

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Kristen Brown, University of Louisville, Chair
Bridget Beville, University of Phoenix
Corina Caraccioli, Loyola University New Orleans
Abram Hedtke, St. Cloud State University

George Irvine, University of Delaware
Rob Kerr, University of Illinois, Springfield
Craig Wilson, University of Arizona


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