Can Clarity Promote Quality? Understanding “Regular and Substantive Interaction” Requirement for Online Programs
The Department of Education (ED) indicated earlier this month it will conduct a negotiated rulemaking process this year to propose new regulations for distance education, among other higher education topics. One area of distance education ripe for review is the requirement that online college programs provide “regular and substantive interaction” between faculty and students. Although the current parameters of regular and substantive interaction are loosely defined and allow schools greater flexibility in designing their digital offerings, the ambiguity of the guidance also contributes to inconsistencies across online programs.
As growing numbers of students enroll in online courses and programs, advocates and policymakers – particularly negotiators participating in the upcoming rulemaking – should consider how ED can update the regular and substantive guidance as a regulatory tool to promote high-quality distance education.
The regular and substantive rule originated in 2005 to differentiate newly emerging Title IV-eligible distance education courses from Title IV-ineligible correspondence courses. Unlike self-paced correspondence courses, distance education requires instructors to initiate regular interactions with students focused on course content. Under this guidance, a school becomes fully ineligible to receive federal student aid if it offers more than 50 percent of its courses by correspondence or if 50 percent or more of its regular students are enrolled in correspondence courses.
ED first applied sanctions to an institution for failing to meet the regular and substantive requirement in 2011, when the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) audited St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and found more than 50 percent of its students were enrolled in correspondence courses rather than distance education programs. As a result, the college lost Title IV eligibility because its distance education programs lacked scheduled, instructor-initiated contact with students.
OIG also recommended requiring St. Mary-of-the-Woods to repay $42.4 million in federal aid received from award years 2005-06 through 2009-10. This action underscored that distance education programs must provide direct student-instructor engagement that is both related to the course subject and initiated by an instructor to receive Title IV aid. St. Mary-of-the-Woods College challenged the audit’s findings and ultimately was not penalized because of ambiguity in the regulations governing distance education.
In 2014, the Department issued a Dear Colleague letter on competency-based education programs further clarifying that instructors must meet accrediting agency standards for their interactions with students to qualify as substantive.
Similar to its review of St. Mary-of-the Woods, a 2017 OIG audit found Western Governors University (WGU) out of compliance with Title IV regulations regarding distance education and recommended requiring the school to return nearly $713 million in aid it had received from 2014 to 2016. The auditors acknowledged that the Higher Education Act does not clearly define regular and substantive interaction and used examples to clarify what might constitute an appropriate application of the rule. For instance, submitting an assignment would qualify as a substantive interaction if the instructor provided individualized feedback, but submitting an objective assignment graded by the computer would not.
Although the OIG audit demonstrated that WGU’s distance education programs failed to include regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors, the rule’s ambiguity ultimately protected WGU from penalty. In a 2019 letter from ED’s Office of Federal Student Aid to WGU, the Department explained that it would not seek the return of Title IV funds because of “the ambiguity of the law and regulations and the lack of clear guidance available at the time of the audit period.” ED let WGU off the hook for its failure to comply with the regular and substantive rule, rendering the regulation effectively meaningless.
Effective July 1, 2021, the Department’s final rules on Distance Education and Innovation offered the most comprehensive explanation of regular and substantive interaction, stating that substantive interactions must include at least two of the following activities:
- Providing direct instruction;
- Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework;
- 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.
The 2021 rules also define regular interaction as:
- Providing the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and scheduled basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency;
- Monitoring the student’s academic engagement and process and ensuring that an instructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed because of such monitoring, or upon request by the student.
Although ED has offered illustrative examples of the regular and substantive requirement in action, the limits of the rule remain loosely defined, leaving individual institutions to develop their own guidelines for distance education instructors. The rule’s ambiguity also weakens its enforceability against low-quality programs, as illustrated by the WGU audit.
As the distance education negotiated rulemaking approaches, selected negotiators should consider how the Department can clarify and strengthen the effectiveness of the regular and substantive rule. With clearer parameters, this regulation should provide a valuable tool for enforcing minimum standards and promoting overall quality in higher education’s increasingly digital landscape.