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Out with Old, in with New...Funding Policies

Even though 2003 saw budget cuts in higher education in many states, it also brought some good news for those of us dealing with distance learning. It seems that the policy makers in the U.S. are beginning to recognize the importance of distance learning to allow greater access for students and as potential ways for institutions to share resources.

There are several areas where changes to federal, state, and institutional policies could make a real difference in distance learning availability and practices. Many of the policy areas relate to institutional practices, for example, differential pricing for distance and on-campus learners. This occurs, in part, because distance learning programs frequently must be fully self-supporting. In other words, the student pays all the costs for each course, there is no subsidy as is typically the case for face-to-face classes.

This practice arose because at many campuses, distance learning courses and programs developed in the continuing education program area, and that is the way continuing education works. This type of pricing may be fine for some students but not for others. We can not expect any policy to change without cause. Sometimes the causes for change come from outside the institution.

Even though distance learning is supposed to open up access, one frequently sited barrier for potential students is the difficulty in obtaining financial aid. In 1992 Congress said that if more than 50 percent of an institution’s courses or students were technology-mediated distance learning, then the courses were defined as correspondence study. That meant the institutions could not offer students federal financial aid, which is by far the most important source for grants and loans. This summer, bills were introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to change this rule and open up federal funding to more distance learning students. At this point in time, there is no absolute agreement on the parameters, but it d'es look likely that next year when Higher Education Reauthorization g'es through Congress, distance learning will fare well.

Last August another group of policymakers paid some real attention to distance learning. The Western Governors’ Association passed a policy resolution entitled Online Learning Courseware Sharing Standards. This resolution says in part that the Western Governors believe universities, colleges, and K-12 schools must be able to share electronic academic resources. In order to do that there needs to be standards that course material developers use, but there also needs to be incentives for faculty to use the shared materials. One way to encourage this resource sharing is to build incentives into the financial models that states use to fund public colleges and universities. The policy makers in a state would need a common vision and that would require a nexus of gubernatorial, legislative, and higher education leadership. The governors have signed on in at least 18 western states.

These rather small policy changes can have a major impact on how and who an instructor is likely to teach in the coming years. Let’s hope this distance learning-friendly policy trend continues.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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