In the wake of three negotiated rulemaking sessions that failed to reach consensus on issues surrounding the regulation of distance education, the Department of Education has published an updated set of proposed rules on the issue, with a public comment period extending through August 24, 2016.

In the proposed regulations, the Department is seeking to clarify the requirements for distance education providers, including additional campuses or branches in foreign locations. The Department’s stated goal in attempting to refine and clarify these distance education requirements is to protect students and assist them in making informed decisions.

Although most providers of distance education courses have already begun working through issues of state reciprocity and individual state authorizations, the uncertainty in the regulations has allowed some to take a wait-and-see approach to actually registering in other states or countries. These proposed rules are evidence that the Department is serious about regulating distance education providers, and institutions would be wise to stop waiting and start acting on the requirements.

Specifically, the new rules would require institutions offering distance education or correspondence courses to register in every state where the institution enrolls students, if that state requires it. The proposed rules also would formally adopt the term “SARA,” or State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which allows for parties to such an agreement to operate in any other state that is also a party to the agreement, and thereby avoid the need to register in the individual state. In addition, the proposed rules would mandate that institutions offering distance education courses document the complaint resolution process for students enrolled in such courses. The rules also would require that schools operating additional locations or branches in foreign locations ensure the branch or location is authorized by the appropriate foreign government agency. Finally, the proposed regulation would require seven new disclosures to current and prospective distance education students, including information on any adverse actions the institution has undergone or is undergoing related to distance education, whether the institution’s program(s) meets various licensure and certification requirements in individual states, refund procedures, and complaint procedures.

Most important, institutions should understand that when these regulations become final (most likely by the end of 2016), there will be no more time to wait and see. Rather than risk loss of participation in federal funding, it is best to get started with compliance now through SARAs where possible, and through individual state registrations where required.