THE HIGHER LEARNING COMMISSION S FEDERAL COMPLIANCE PROGRAM: A GUIDE FOR INSTITUTIONS AND EVALUATION TEAMS

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1 THE HIGHER LEARNING COMMISSION S FEDERAL COMPLIANCE PROGRAM: A GUIDE FOR INSTITUTIONS AND EVALUATION TEAMS Effective for visits beginning January 1, 2012 This document outlines the Commission s requirements to ensure that its affiliated institutions comply with federal regulations. It identifies applicable Commission policies, provides a template for institutions in documenting compliance with the requirements, and provides guidance to evaluation teams in determining whether the requirements are met. Following this template, the institution provides its evidence in a separate federal compliance section of its comprehensive self-study report. Introduction As a federally recognized accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission is required to assure that all its member institutions are meeting their Title IV program responsibilities as well as complying with the expectations of specific regulations accreditors must enforce as a part of their recognition by the U.S. Department of Education. Compliance with these requirements by both institutions and HLC is necessary to ensure that institutions accredited by the HLC are eligible for federal financial aid. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 increased the number of statutory requirements that the Commission must ensure its accredited institutions fulfill. Further, the Department of Education continues to define and to implement these requirements through regulations effective July 1, 2010, and additional regulations effective July 1, This document was substantially revised in 2009 to reflect the changes in statute and anticipated changes in regulation. The revised document for visits in 2012 reflects any changes in regulations and in Commission policy not reflected in the documents. The major addition to the 2012 document is information about the implementation of the new federal regulation on the credit hour. Expectations for Institutions and Peer Reviewers The Higher Learning Commission s Federal Compliance program follows a three-step process: First, institutions must address these requirements in the materials they submit to the Commission before a visit. PEAQ institutions should address the Federal Compliance requirements in the self-study before the comprehensive evaluation visit following the outline of requirements in this document. AQIP institutions should address the requirements in the materials prepared for Quality Checkup Visits. Peer reviewers should study the requirements and submitted materials before the visit to determine whether there are any areas of concern. Second, the Commission expects that institutions make Federal Compliance information available in the Resource Room during the visit. While conducting the visit, peer reviewers should verify that the Federal Compliance information they received is accurate and complete. They should raise any questions they have with institutional representatives. Third, peer reviewers should document that they have conducted a thorough review of the institution s compliance with federal requirements. A template in the team report will guide this documentation. Page 1

2 CREDITS, PROGRAM LENGTH AND TUITION Updated for 2012 The Higher Learning Commission Applicable Commission Policies: 3.10, CREDITS, PROGRAM LENGTH AND TUITION; 3.2(a)1, CHANGES IN MISSION OR INSTITUTIONAL CHARACTERISTICS What is the expectation of this requirement? The institution should be able to demonstrate that it assigns credit hours to courses in a reasonable and systematic way, typically in the semester/trimester hour or quarter hour format following an institutional policy. Degree programs should have overall credit hour requirements. These credit hour assignments and degree program requirements should fit within the range of good practice currently in higher education in the United States. The Commission has recently revised Policy 3.10 to reflect federal attention to the credit hour allocations made by institutions. The institution should review the Information for Institutions on the Higher Learning Commission s Credit Hour Policies as well as the Protocol for Peer Reviewers Reviewing Credit Hours Under the Commission s New Policies, and should complete the Worksheets for Institutions: A. Credits and Program Length and B Clock Hours available on the Commission s Web site. Should the institution plan to make any significant change to credit hour assignments or degree program requirements, the institution is required to seek Commission approval prior to making those changes. The institution should review the Change in Clock or Credit Hour change application on the Commission s Web site for more information. Additionally, the institution should set tuition consistently across degree programs. If tuition differs for a particular program or programs, the institution should be able to justify that difference based on costs for offering that degree, the length of the program, or the objectives of the program. How should the team determine that the institution has met this requirement? The team should review the information an institution submits before a visit, particularly the Worksheets for Institutions: A. Credits and Program Length and B. Clock Hours as well as the course catalog and other attachments required for the Institutional Worksheets. The team should determine whether the institution s credit hour allocations, degree program requirements, and tuition costs across programs are within the range of good practice in higher education and contribute to an academic environment in which students receive a rigorous and thorough education following the information in the Protocol for Peer Reviewers Reviewing Credit Hours under the Higher Learning Commission s New Policies. STUDENT COMPLAINTS Applicable Commission Policies: 13.3, INSTITUTIONAL RECORDS OF STUDENT COMPLAINTS What is the expectation of this requirement? The institution should explain its process for handling student complaints. The institution should also summarize the number and type of complaints and track their resolutions for the three years prior to the visit. The institution is free to design a complaint tracking process that best fits its needs. Whatever approach the institution takes, the institution should show that it receives, tracks, and processes student complaints in a timely manner. The institution should also report on this information in the aggregate to the visiting team. How should the team determine that the institution has met this requirement? The team should review the process that the institution uses to manage complaints as well as the history of complaints received and processed. The team should use this information to determine whether the institution has a process to review and resolve complaints in a timely manner. The team should verify that the evidence shows that the institution can, and does, follow this process and should advise the institution of any improvements that might be appropriate. This requirement links to the institution s fulfillment of Criterion One regarding mission and integrity. Page 2

3 TRANSFER POLICIES Applicable Commission Policies: 3.11, TRANSFER OF CREDIT What is the expectation of this requirement? The institution should demonstrate that it discloses its transfer policies to students and to the public. Its policies should contain information about the criteria the institution uses to make transfer of credit decisions. How should the team determine that the institution has met this requirement? The team should review the institution s transfer policies. In particular, the team should consider where the institution discloses these policies (e.g., in its catalog, on its Web site) and how easily current and prospective students can access that information. The team should determine whether the disclosed information clearly explains the criteria the institution uses to make transfer decisions. VERIFICATION OF STUDENT IDENTITY Updated for 2012! Applicable Commission Policies: 3.12, VERIFICATION OF THE IDENTITY OF STUDENTS IN DISTANCE OR CORRESPONDENCE EDUCATION What is the expectation of this requirement? The institution should verify the identity of students who participate in courses or programs provided through distance or correspondence education. The institution may use a variety of approaches to verify student identity, which may include (1) secure login and pass code; (2) proctored examinations; and (3) new or other technologies and practices that are effective in verifying the identity of students. Additionally, if the method by which the institution verifies student identity will incur a cost to the student (such as a fee for a proctored exam) the institution must disclose that cost to the student at the time of registration or enrollment. The institution must also demonstrate that it is making reasonable efforts to protect student privacy in verifying student identity. Note that the definitions of distance and correspondence education for the purpose of verifying student identity are the federal definitions and are quoted in the Commission policy for reference. How should the team determine that the institution has met this requirement? The team should determine how the institution verifies that the student who enrolls in a course is the same student who submits assignments, takes exams, and earns a final grade. The team should ensure that the institution does not merely have plans to verify student identity but has implemented actual approaches and that those approaches respect student privacy. In addition, the team needs to check that any fees related to verification and not included in tuition are explained to the students prior to enrollment in distance courses (e.g., a proctoring fee paid by students on the day of the proctored exam). TITLE IV PROGRAM and RELATED RESPONSIBILITIES Updated for 2012! Applicable Commission Policies: 1.7, INSTITUTIONAL COMPLIANCE WITH THE HIGHER EDUCATION REAUTHORIZATION ACT; 3.2(a)1, CHANGES IN INSTITUTIONAL MISSION OR CHARACTERISTICS What is the expectation of this requirement? The institution is expected to provide the Commission with information regarding each of the components listed below. The institution staff compiling this information should work with the financial aid office and the chief financial officer or comptroller. This requirement has several components the institution and team must address: 1. General Program Responsibilities. The institution should provide the Commission with information regarding the status of its Title IV program; in particular, the institution should submit information about recent findings from Title IV program reviews, inspections, or audits. The institution should disclose any limitation, suspension, or termination actions that the Department of Education has undertaken and the reasons for those actions. The institution should also disclose any fines, letters of credit, or heightened monitoring arising from the Department of Education. The institution should address, in its self-study, the consequences of these challenges for its short and long-term financial health. The institution should also discuss its response and corrective actions to these challenges. Page 3

4 2. Financial Responsibility Requirements. The institution must provide information about the Department s review of the institution s composite ratios and financial audits. In particular, the institution should provide information about the A-133 portion of the audit. The Commission also analyzes each institution s financial ratios to determine whether there might be financial concerns. The team should check with the institution and with Commission representatives regarding whether the Commission or the Department has previously raised concerns about an institution s finances based on these ratios. If so, the institution should have addressed in its documents the actions it has taken and plans to take in response to these concerns. 3. Default Rates. The institution should take steps to avoid excessive loan default rates. The institution should disclose student loan default rates as provided by the Department for the three years leading up to the visit. If the default rates are higher for the institution than its peer institutions or if rates have exceeded Departmental thresholds or triggered a Department review, then the institution should address the actions it has taken in response and submit to the team any corrective plan filed with the department. Note for 2012 and thereafter institutions and teams should be using the three-year default rate based on revised default rate data provided in September 2011; if the institution does not provide the default rate for three years leading up to the comprehensive evaluation visit, the team should contact Commission staff. 4. Campus Crime Information, Athletic Participation and Financial Aid, and Related Disclosures. Title IV responsibilities include the legal obligation to disclose information to students and to the public about campus crime, athletic participation and other information. The institution should provide samples of those disclosures in the Resource Room. In addition, the institution should discuss in its self-study any findings from the Department regarding these disclosures and be prepared to discuss them with the team. 5. Student Right to Know. Title IV responsibilities require that institutions provide graduation/completion for the student body by gender, ethnicity, receipt of Pell grants, and other data as well as information about the process for withdrawing as a student, cost of attendance, refund and return of Title IV policies, current academic programs and faculty, names of applicable accrediting agencies, description of facilities for disabled students, and the institution s policy on enrollment in study-abroad. In addition, certain institutions need to disclose their transfer-out rate. The institution should provide samples of these disclosures in the Resource Room. In addition, the institution should discuss in its self-study any findings from the Department regarding these disclosures and be prepared to discuss them with the team. 6. Satisfactory Academic Progress and Attendance Policies. The institution is required to have a Satisfactory Academic Progress policy and an attendance policy as part of the Title IV program. It must document to the Commission that these policies are readily available to students, satisfy state or federal requirements, and are being appropriately applied by the institution in individual student situations. In most cases, teams should verify that these policies exist and are available to students, typically in the course catalog or student handbook. Note that the Commission does not necessarily require that the institution take attendance but does anticipate that institutional attendance policies will provide information to students about attendance at the institution. 7. Contractual Relationships. The institution should disclose its contracts with third-party entities not accredited by a federally recognized accrediting agency as a part of the materials in preparation for the on-site evaluation. The institution should have previously disclosed all existing contracts to the Commission in the 2010 and 2011 Annual Institutional Data Updates. The Commission s substantive change policy requires that the institution notify the Commission of any new contracts for up to 25 percent of an academic program, that the institution obtain prior Commission approval before initiating any contract for 25 to 50 percent of a program, and that the Commission approve contracts for more than 50 percent of a program only in exceptional circumstances under strict scrutiny. The institution should review the document Information on Contractual and Consortial Arrangements more information. 8. Consortial Relationships. The institution should disclose its consortial relationships with other entities accredited by a federally recognized accrediting agency as part of the materials in preparation for the on-site evaluation. The institution should have previously disclosed all consortial relationships to the Commission in the 2010 and 2011 Annual Institutional Data Updates. The Commission s substantive change policy requires that the institution notify the Commission of any new consortium for 25 to 50 percent of an academic program and that the institution obtains prior Commission approval for any consortium that offers 50 percent or more of an academic program. The institution should review Information on Contractual and Consortial Arrangements. Page 4

5 How should the team determine that the institution has met all the components in this requirement? The team should review all of the information that the institution discloses having to do with its Title IV program responsibilities. The team should determine whether the Department has raised any issues related to the institution s compliance or whether the auditor in the A-133 has raised any issues about the institution s compliance as well as look to see how carefully and effectively the institution handles its Title IV responsibilities. If an institution has been cited or is not handling these responsibilities effectively, the team should indicate that finding within the federal compliance portion of the team report and whether the institution appears to be moving forward with corrective action that the Department has determined to be appropriate. The team will also need to decide whether these issues relate to the institution s ability to satisfy the Criteria for Accreditation, particularly with regard to whether its disclosures to students are candid and complete and demonstrate appropriate integrity (Core Component 1.e). The team should indicate in the appropriate sections any issues in federal compliance that relate to fulfillment of the Criteria and whether the issues need institutional attention or Commission follow-up. INSTITUTIONAL DISCLOSURES and ADVERTISING AND RECRUITMENT MATERIALS Updated for 2012! Applicable Commission Policies: 12.2, AN AFFILIATED ORGANIZATION S OBLIGATIONS FOR PUBLIC DISCLOSURE; 12.5, AN ORGANIZATION S ADVERTISING AND RECRUITING MATERIALS What is the expectation of this requirement? The institution should demonstrate that it provides accurate, timely, and appropriately detailed information to current and prospective students and the public about its accreditation status with the Commission and other accrediting agencies. The institution should also provide such information to current and prospective students about its programs, locations, and policies. How should the team determine that the institution has met this requirement? The team should review the institution s disclosure about its accreditation status with the Commission to determine whether the information it provides is appropriately formatted and contains the Commission s Web address. The institution should use the Commission s Mark of Affiliation wherever possible because it provides all required disclosure information about accreditation. The team should review institutional disclosures about its relationship with other accrediting agencies for accuracy and for appropriate consumer information, particularly regarding the link between specialized/professional accreditation and the licensure necessary for employment in many professional or specialized areas. The team should also review the institution s catalog, brochures, recruiting materials, and information provided by the institution s advisors or counselors to determine whether the institution provides accurate information to current and prospective students. RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHER ACCREDITING AGENCIES AND WITH STATE REGULATORY BODIES Updated for 2012! Applicable Commission Policies: 9.1 PROFESSIONAL OR SPECIALIZED ACCREDITATION; 9.2(a) REGARD FOR ACCREDITATION ACTIONS BY OTHER INSTITUTIONAL ACCREDITING AGENCIES; 9.3 REQUIREMENTS OF INSTITUTIONS HOLDING DUAL INSTITUTIONAL ACCREDITATION; 9.4 CONSIDERATION OF OTHER AGENCIES DECISIONS What is the expectation of this requirement? These policies require that the institution appropriately discloses to the Commission its relationship with any other specialized, professional or institutional accreditor and with all governing or coordinating bodies in states in which the institution may have a presence. The institution must disclose this information in its Self-Study Report or Quality Checkup Report. In addition, the institution must disclose information regarding its relationship with federally-recognized accrediting agencies in appropriate portions of the Annual Institutional Data Update (AIDU). The institution must also make available for the team the most recent comprehensive evaluation report and action letter from each institutional or specialized accrediting agency as well as any interim monitoring prepared for that agency. How should the team determine that the institution has met this requirement? The team should review the information, particularly any information that indicates the institution is under sanction or show-cause or has had its status with any agency suspended, revoked, or terminated, as well as the reasons for such actions. The team should then determine whether Page 5

6 this information provides any indication about the institution s capacity to meet the Commission s Criteria for Accreditation. Should the team recommend initial or continued status to an institution under sanction or adverse action (i.e., withdrawal, suspension, denial, or termination) with another federally-recognized institutional or programmatic accreditor or with a state entity or that has received such an action with the past five years, the team must outline in the report its reasons for making its recommendation despite its knowledge of these actions. Should the team learn that the institution is at risk of losing, or has lost, its degree or program authorization in any state in which it meets state presence requirements, it should contact the Commission staff liaison as soon as possible. PUBLIC NOTIFICATION OF COMPREHENSIVE EVALUATION VISIT and THIRD PARTY COMMENT Applicable Commission Policies: 12.6, PUBLIC NOTIFICATION OF COMPREHENSIVE EVALUATION VISIT What is the expectation of this requirement? The Commission seeks public comments on institutions as part of its comprehensive evaluations and Quality Checkup Visits. To decide how best to solicit third party comments, the institution should first determine its constituencies. These groups should include students, parents, alumni, taxpayers, donors, community groups, local businesses, and so on. The institution should then decide what media it will use to solicit comments. Local newspapers, institutional Web sites, and alumni magazines are appropriate choices. The notice should reach all constituencies but should not unduly burden the institution. The notification should follow the prescribed format; a sample notification is available on the Commission s Web site under Preparation for the Comprehensive Visit. How should the team determine that the institution has met this requirement? The team should review information about the public disclosure of the upcoming visit, including sample announcements, to determine whether the institution made an appropriate and timely effort to notify the public and seek comments. The team also will evaluate the comments to determine whether it needs to follow-up on any issues through its interviews and review of documentation during the visit process. Summary The Higher Learning Commission expects that affiliated institutions comply with federal regulations and demonstrate fulfillment through the Federal Compliance program explained in this document. Should the Commission receive any information to the contrary through an evaluation visit, the Annual Institutional Data Update, institutional reporting, or other means the Commission will take any step necessary to further assess the institution s noncompliance. However, the Commission does not itself determine compliance with federal law and regulations: such determinations are the province of the U.S. Department of Education or other appropriate body legally empowered to make such judgments. The Commission, instead, determines whether information it receives about the Federal Compliance requirements affects the institution s capacity to meet the Commission s Criteria for Accreditation and Commission policies. If the Commission finds that further review would benefit the institution s ongoing capacity to meet the Criteria, then the Commission may require monitoring such as a progress report or a focused visit. Significant noncompliance will result in a review of the institution s affiliation with the Commission to determine whether sanction or withdrawal is appropriate. Contact for Questions: Department of Legal and Governmental Affairs Carrie Caine, Assistant, ext. 125 Page 6

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