By Aimee Stauf
Patrick Henry College
PHC student Katie Donnelly studying for her classes
Due to new regulatory initiatives by the federal and state agencies, PHC’s distance learning program is being discontinued at the close of the current (spring 2013) semester. Nothing except internship credits will be offered for the summer semester.
“In periods of reappraisal, all healthy enterprises refocus on their ‘core business,’” said President Graham Walker in a notice to students. “For us, this means focusing on what Patrick Henry College is manifestly good at: educating students classically and biblically in the face-to-face setting of our campus here in Purcellville, VA.”
Online education has been a largely unregulated form of education until a 2011 federal regulation, called the “state authorization rule,” required all schools to be licensed with every state in which it operates. Although the federal government did not enforce the rule, states did, and began defining the terms “operate in” and “physical presence” to include students enrolled in online classes, putting colleges under state restriction.
“The Admissions Office communicated this information to students who have applied to distance learning in the fall,” said Bill Kellaris, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management. “Already, several of them have changed their application to studying on campus in the fall.”
Upon learning of the proliferation of new regulations, President Walker consulted an attorney to explore every possibility that might keep the DL program alive. “I kept peppering him with hypothetical scenarios in which I was trying to rescue the possibility of keeping summertime online courses available at least for students who have been enrolled in our regular campus-based program,” he said.
Asking questions like, “What if the only students taking the online course are students who have already taken on-ground courses in Virginia?” or “What if the course began with a session in Virginia and ended with a session in Virginia?”, Walker says he was told, essentially, “If students are taking the course primarily online, the school must make sure that it complies with the regulations of every state where students will be residing while they are completing the online course.”
Given the challenges and resources required in both understanding and adhering to a host of new regulations and compliance procedures, Dr. Walker concluded that good stewardship precluded continuing PHC’s distance learning program, at least for the present.
Regulations vary from state to state and usually require costly licensing fees. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year described how some states require up to $10,000 for a DL program to be approved in the state. Minnesota, for example, requires schools to submit their financial status, the qualifications of its faculty members, and its general education curriculum for review before they can be approved. The process costs an initial $7,000 – $10,000, with an annual $2,500 fee. Massachusetts also charges $10,000 initially, with a $2,000 yearly fee.
Given those requirements, and the fact that PHC’s DL program, with only nine students this year, has lost more money than it has made since the program began, the administration deemed it financially unwise to continue the program. The administration says it will keep researching the issue, and that as regulations change from year to year, they will keep tabs on licensing requirements. And since some other states make it easier for online education, not requiring schools with online students within their borders to be licensed within the state, PHC may find new channels for its DL program. California, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia, for instance, are states that might allow PHC to offer DL courses in their state, but those options need more exploration.