U.S. Department of Education Issues Final Distance Education and Innovation Regulations

Publication Number 92 September 3, 2020


USDEOn September 2, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) published in the Federal Register its final Distance Education and Innovation regulations. These regulations will be effective on July 1, 2021. The regulations were developed as a result of a 2019 USDE negotiated rulemaking. The negotiated rulemaking committee reached consensus on the proposed regulations, published by USDE on April 2, 2020. USDE sought comments on the proposed regulations prior to issuing the final regulations.

A number of the provisions in the final regulations have a direct impact on accreditation, including:

  • Providing flexibility for distance education and competency-based education, relying on a demonstration of learning rather than “seat time.”
  • More clearly defining the requirements for “regular and substantive interaction” in distance education and the permissibility of engaging instructional teams in the delivery of distance education. 
  • Providing flexibility to institutions to modify their curricula at the recommendations of industry advisory boards without relying on a traditional faculty-led decision-making process.
  • Clarifying "satisfactory academic progress" requirements.
  • Clarifying that an institution may demonstrate a reasonable relationship between the length of a program and the entry-level requirements of the occupation for which that program prepares students.
  • Clarifying that the Secretary will rely on the requirements established by an institution’s accrediting agency or state authorizing agency to evaluate an institution's:
    —Instructors' qualifications for distance education.
    —Classification of a course or program as distance education.
    —Assignment of credit hours.


The U.S. Department of Education announced on August 31, 2020 that the Department is rescinding a number of guidance documents because they are outdated. The action comes as a result of an Executive Order that requires government agencies to “review its guidance documents and, consistent with applicable law, rescind those guidance documents that it determines should no longer be in effect.”

USDE noted that the rescinded guidance documents are outdated because, e.g., they are superseded by subsequent amendments or enactments. The rescinded documents do not include guidance that USDE “has, is considering, or is planning to rescind through exercising the Department’s policy-making discretion.” A number of these guidance documents have been superseded by the new accreditation and distance education rules that have been published by USDE in the past year.

The guidance documents rescinded by USDE’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) include a number that have an impact on accreditation, including:

  • Clarifies the Department’s expectation regarding the accreditation effective date used by accrediting agencies (issued June 6, 2017)
  • Institutional Accreditation for Distance Learning Programs (issued September 28, 2006)
  • General guidance for accrediting agencies and institutions on the treatment of campuses of Title IV-eligible institutions that have been determined to quality for independent accreditation (issued February 25, 2010)
  • Guidance to Institutions and Accrediting Agencies Regarding a Credit Hour as Defined in the Final Regulations Published on October 29, 2010 (issued March 18, 2011)
  • AMENDED – State authorization under the Program Integrity Regulations (issued April 21, 2011)
  • Implementation of Program Integrity regulations (issued July 20, 2011)
  • Clarifies flexibility for accrediting agencies (issued November 5, 2015)
  • Encouraging information-sharing between the Department and accrediting agencies; encouraging accrediting agencies to avail themselves of risk-based reviews (issued January 20, 2016)
  • Clarifies and encourages use of flexibility for differentiated reviews by accrediting agencies (issued April 22, 2016)
  • Outlines categories of terminology used by accrediting agencies to describe actions and statuses, and provides guidance to federally recognized accrediting agencies (issued November 16, 2016)

Guidance documents rescinded by the OPE can be found at https://ifap.ed.gov/ by entering the title of the document into the search function.