|Action||Regulatory Language for Enrollment Agreement Legislation|
|Comment Period||Ends 11/14/2020|
November 12, 2020
Via Virginia Regulatory Town Hall and Email
Beverly Rebar, Senior Associate for Academic and Legislative Affairs
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia James Monroe Building
101 North 14 Street, 9th Floor
Richmond, VA 23219
Dear Ms. Rebar:
American Public University System (“APUS”) appreciates the opportunity to submit comments to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (“SCHEV”) in response to the September 14, 2020 notice of Proposed Regulatory Language for Enrollment Agreement Legislation, announcing SCHEV’s intent to amend 8 VAC 40-31, Regulations Governing Certification of Certain Institutions to Confer Degrees, Diplomas and Certificates. (37 Va. Reg. Regs. Issue 2 (September 14, 2020)). APUS understands that the purpose of the proposed action is to amend the regulation governing postsecondary schools to include enrollment agreements between students and regulated institutions as mandated by Chapter 298 of the 2017 Acts of Assembly (“Chapter 298”). Chapter 298 left to SCHEV discretion to prescribe “disclosures” to be contained in such enrollment agreements.
APUS supports SCHEV’s stated goal of developing regulations that “will benefit both regulated institutions and students enrolled in these schools”.1 With that goal in mind, APUS offers the following comments on certain aspects of the proposed regulatory language, including several of the specific proposed disclosures.
Founded in Virginia in 1991 as American Military University to serve the needs of a highly mobile military, APUS provides online postsecondary education directed primarily at the
1 Proposed Regulation Agency Background Document https://www.townhall.virginia.gov/l/GetFile.cfm?File=100\4821\8684\AgencyStatement_SCHEV_86
needs of the military, military-affiliated, and public service communities. APUS enrolls approximately 83,700 students worldwide and offers more than 200 degree and certificate programs in diverse fields of study including business administration, health science, technology, criminal justice, education, and liberal arts, as well as national security, military studies, intelligence, and homeland security. APUS is regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and permitted to operate as an out-of-state institution in the Commonwealth of Virginia by SCHEV.
APUS is guided by a strong sense of social responsibility and a commitment to serving our students and the broader community. Our mission is to provide high-quality higher education with emphasis on educating the nation’s military and public service communities by offering respected, relevant, accessible, affordable, and student-focused online programs that prepare students for service and leadership in a diverse, global society. APUS is proud to serve as one of the leaders of the proprietary education sector in this country.
APUS acknowledges that the proposed definition of “enrollment agreement” is to some extent derived directly from Chapter 298. However, we respectfully encourage SCHEV in its interpretation of the definition to note that an enrollment agreement may take several forms—for example, some institutions may utilize traditional paper documents, and other institutions, given technological advances, may present the required information online as part of the enrollment process. Where information is presented online, disclosure might take the form of descriptive links to institutional web pages where additional relevant information is available. These varied forms should all be considered an acceptable “enrollment agreement” so long as both the student and the institution sign the agreement, either electronically or on paper.
This flexibility is necessary because each institution is different in terms of its current enrollment process and procedures. When it adopts final regulations, SCHEV should permit institutions adequate time to consider and implement processes to comply with the requirements. Furthermore, it would be helpful to institutions if SCHEV would identify a SCHEV point of contact who would provide technical assistance to institutions about their operational plans for compliance with the regulations.
First, we note that as a practical matter, a student’s “start date” is often best described as an anticipated start date that indicates the earliest start date for which an individual student is prepared to enroll. As a result of personal or family considerations, students often take advantage of flexible start dates, where made available by an institution, and choose a subsequent start date. For example, institutions such as APUS offer monthly start dates or other innovative academic calendars, and it is not uncommon for students to indicate their intent to enroll in one month and in fact to begin study in the subsequent month. We encourage SCHEV to accept as a “start date” the student’s and the institution’s good-faith attempt to identify the student’s anticipated start date.
Second, we encourage SCHEV to clarify that disclosure of “the total number of credit hours or clock hours to complete the program of study” should reflect the total number of credit hours or clock hours to complete the program without regard for any transfer credits the institution may award the student. In other words, APUS understands that the enrollment
agreement does not need to be modified to reflect an individual student’s academic circumstances and any transfer credits awarded. As a practical matter, transfer credits typically are not granted until after a student has provided an official transcript that is evaluated by the accepting institution, so it may be impossible for an institution at the time of execution of the enrollment agreement to account reliably for potential transfer credits awarded to an individual student.
APUS notes that institutional charges and fees may be calculated and assessed by institutions in a number of different ways—for example, by the clock hour or credit hour; per course; per academic term; or for the full academic program. We believe that transparency is important and that the disclosures will only be useful to students if the basis of the charges is conveyed clearly. However, because institutions and their academic programs vary in program structure, we recommend that SCHEV permit institutions to disclose institutional charges and fees in accordance with and with reference to the nature and structure of their academic programs.
Some institutions, such as APUS, do not assess any institutional charges or fees at any time before the first class day of an academic session. Therefore, we respectfully request that SCHEV revise the proposed language to indicate that “terms for cancellation” language is required to be included in the enrollment agreement only if the institution requires the student to make a payment before the beginning of class.
APUS respectfully requests that SCHEV omit this portion of the proposed regulation. As discussed above, it is not uncommon for students to delay their start dates by a month or two as a result of personal scheduling or other individual circumstances, including as related to military duty. The simple fact that a student delays his anticipated start date, or drops from a program and re-enrolls at a later date, does not warrant completion of a new enrollment agreement. Similarly, if a student changes her major halfway through her course of study toward a bachelor’s degree, but nothing else—including the number of credits required to complete the degree program and the estimated institutional charges and fees—has changed, there is no reason to require a new enrollment agreement. Requiring that a new enrollment agreement be completed in such cases would present unnecessary administrative burden to both the student and the institution. If SCHEV is concerned that the disclosures may become outdated, the regulation could require that the enrollment agreement include language stating that the information in the enrollment agreement could change if the student delays his start date, changes the
program of enrollment, or drops from the program and re-enrolls at a later date. In those situations, the student could request updated disclosure information.
Thank you for your consideration of these comments. APUS would be pleased to discuss with you any of the points raised in this letter so that the final regulation can meet the goals established by SCHEV.
Thomas A. Beckett
Senior Vice President & General Counsel