FAQs for COVID-Related Distance Education

All Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) member institutions are expected to comply with the Standards for Accreditation and Requirements of Affiliation, Verification of Compliance with Accreditation-Relevant Federal Regulations, and MSCHE policies and procedures. Temporary waivers to MSCHE policies and procedures are published at https://www.msche.org/covid-19.


Questions 1 – 16
General Questions Related to Distance Education 

Questions 17 – 28
Sub Change FAQs

For more on Substantive Change Policy and Procedures, Substantive Change Guidelines, and Credit Hour Policy, visit https://www.msche.org/substantive-change/ and https://www.msche.org/policies-guidelines/ for more information.

Questions 29- 33
IPEDS Related Questions 
Information in this section applies to those institutions that were granted temporary approval to use distance education in accordance with the March 5, 2020 U.S. Department of Education (USDE) Guidelines. This information was provided by the IPEDS Help Desk.

Additional Resources

Q1: When do the temporary flexibilities that allow my institution to offer distance education without obtaining substantive change approval end?

The temporary flexibilities granted by the United States Department of Education end December 31, 2020.

Q2: Can the distance education waiver be extended if the institution wants to continue offering distance education beyond December 31, 2020?

Any institution granted a waiver of the Substantive Change Policy and Procedures by the Commission is allowed to offer distance education programs to accommodate students impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19) interruptions through December 31, 2020. An institution wanting to continue offering 50 percent or more of a program via distance education after December 31, 2020 must submit a request for substantive change approval in accordance with MSCHE’s Substantive Change Policy and Procedures no later than November 1, 2020.

Q3: Will temporary approval to offer distance education be noted within the institution’s Statement of Accreditation Status?

For institutions that submitted formal written notice in response to the Commission’s request of March 9, 2020, the Statement of Accreditation Status (SAS) reflects acknowledgement of the use of distance education in accordance with the United States Department of Education (USDE) guidelines published March 5, 2020. This is noted as an accreditation action under the Accreditation Actions tab.

Once an institution obtains approval from the Commission for its first distance education program under the Substantive Change Policy and Procedures for No. 4 Alternative Delivery Method, distance education is considered included within the institution’s scope of accreditation which will be noted on the Alternative Delivery Method tab of the SAS.

Q4: Are any additional Distance Education approvals required?

There may be additional state requirements and requirements of other accreditors.

Your state licensing entit(ies) may have their own requirements regarding a change in delivery method or providing education through distance education specifically. You should contact your state approval entit(ies) to determine those requirements.

Because your students may be located outside of the state in which your institution is licensed, there may be additional requirements established by the state in which your students are located at the time they participate in distance education (34 CFR §600.9(c)(1)).  Many states participate in State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, commonly known as SARA. SARA is an agreement between two or more states that authorizes an institution located and legally authorized in a state covered by the agreement to provide postsecondary education through distance education or correspondence courses to students located in other states covered by the agreement and cannot prohibit any member state of the agreement from enforcing its own general-purpose state laws and regulations outside of the state authorization of distance education. (34 CFR 600.2)

SARA is managed by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA). For further information and to see which states participate in SARA, visit https://nc-sara.org/.

You also should contact any programmatic accreditors to determine whether there are any restrictions in place for the academic programs covered by that accreditation.

Q5: We offer programs that prepare students for licensure or certification. Will students participating in distance education in those programs be eligible for those exams?

Because the acceptance of distance learning courses or hours or credit for them toward the number of hours a student must complete is determined by the licensing body, we recommend that you outreach to the licensing bod(ies) to confirm acceptance. In some cases, such as for clock-hour courses that lead to licensure, the licensure body may not accept distance learning courses or hours or give credit for them toward the number of hours a student must complete.

The accreditor for the specific program may also have requirements regarding credits earned through distance education, so any programmatic accreditors should also be contacted.

The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) provides additional information at https://wcetfrontiers.org/2020/04/30/licensing-certification-dispersed-students-oh-my/.

Q6: We were granted a waiver to move to a distance education format beginning in Spring 2020. Does the Student Identity Verification requirement in Verification of Compliance with Accreditation-Relevant Federal Regulations apply to our institution?

Yes. Federal regulations (34 CFR §602.17(g)) require institutions that offer distance education or correspondence education to have processes in place through which the institution establishes that the student who registers in any course offered via distance education or correspondence is the same student who academically engages in the course or program.

Institutions can elect to use a variety of methods to verify the identity of students who participate in distance or correspondence education. Examples may include a secure login and pass code, proctored examinations, and new or other technologies and practices that are effective in verifying student identity.

In accordance with 34 CFR §602.17(h), institutions must use processes that protect student privacy and notify students at the time of registration or enrollment of any projected additional student charges associated with the verification of student identity including any required travel to campus.

You can access the handbook for Verification of Compliance with Accreditation-Relevant Federal Regulations, and the training video can be accessed at Verification of Compliance with Accreditation-Relevant Federal Regulations. Student identity verification is addressed at minute 8:00.  Registration is free.

Q7: Our self-study visit was delayed to Fall 2020 or Spring 2021 and we were granted a waiver to move to a distance education format. We have already posted our Institutional Federal Compliance Report for Verification of Compliance with Accreditation-Relevant Federal Regulations. Should we update the Report and re-submit?

Documents that have already been posted in the Institution Portal should not be deleted, duplicated, or replaced. Institutions whose visit was delayed due to COVID-19 are being asked to provide a 5 – 10 page update. Student identity verification and protection of student privacy should be addressed in that update.

Q8: Are learning management systems (LMS) or online platforms required for the delivery of distance learning?

According to the United States Department of Education, “distance learning does not require the use of sophisticated learning management systems or online platforms, although accreditors may have additional standards included in their review of distance learning programs…” To meet federal requirements, “an institution must communicate to students through one of several types of technology – including email or by telephone – described under 34 CFR §602.2, and instructors must initiate substantive communication with students, either individually or collectively, on a regular basis. In other words an instructor may use email to provide instructional materials to students enrolled in the instructor’s class, use chat features to communicate with students, set up conference calls to facilitate group conversations, engage in email exchanges, or require students to submit work electronically that the instructor will evaluate.”

Q9: Should we take attendance in our classes?

You should follow whatever policies your institution has whether courses are delivered in-person or online as well as any state requirements or any requirements of other accrediting agencies.

Some institutions find that taking attendance may support student involvement and provide evidence that students are engaging in the coursework. As required by MSCHE’s Requirement of Affiliation No. 9 and Standard III: Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience, the institution’s student learning program and opportunities “are characterized by rigor, coherence, and appropriate assessment of student achievement throughout the educational offerings, regardless of certificate or degree level or delivery and instructional modality.” As further stated in the MSCHE Substantive Change Guidelines, “the Commission expects that the quality of distance education is equivalent to face-to-face education and should include interaction, assignments, feedback, and quality instructional time.” In addition, federal regulation requires regular and substantive interaction between students and the instructor or instructors, either synchronously or asynchronously.

Q10: What meets the expectation of “regular interaction?”

The federal definition of distance Education provided in the final Distance Learning and Innovation Regulations requires “regular and substantive interaction” between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. Regular interaction means that the institution provides the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and regular basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency, monitors the student’s academic engagement and success, and ensures that the instructor(s) are responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed on the basis of such monitoring, or upon request by the student.

Q11: What meets the expectation of “substantive interaction” between students and the instructor(s)?

Substantive interaction is defined in the USDE’s August 24, 2020, final Distance Learning and Innovation Regulations as  “engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion, and also includes at least two of the following — (i) Providing direct instruction; (ii) Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework; (iii) Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; (iv) Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or (v) Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.” For further clarification, contact the U.S. Department of Education Office of Federal Student Aid.

Q12: Some of our programs include hands-on labs. In some cases, specialized equipment is required. Can we offer these courses?

Institutional representatives must use their judgement to determine whether labs can be offered through distance learning. You should assess the expected student outcomes in light of the innovative approaches that may be available. Some labs may be delivered effectively using SIMS or other software that provides virtual experiences. For performance-based coursework, students may be asked to submit videos of their performance.

Some programs may have programmatic accreditors that have requirements regarding labs. The program accreditor should be contacted to confirm what those expectations are.

Whatever the decision, the institution should be able to demonstrate that the students were provided comparable learning to an in-class experience and that expected student outcomes were met.

Q14: I have questions about the administration of title IV student aid. Are there other resources that can provide further assistance?

The USDE provides all coronavirus-related information, including waivers and guidance, on its Coronavirus webpage: https://www.ed.gov/coronavirus?src=feature

Q15: Does the distance education waiver apply to international schools?

Institutions located outside of the United States that participate in the title IV Direct Loan program and award their credentials to U.S. students are considered “foreign schools.” Under the CARES Act, any part of an otherwise eligible program at a foreign institution may be offered via distance education if the applicable government authorit(ies) in the country in which the foreign institution is located have declared a public health emergency, major disaster or emergency, or national emergency related to COVID-19 for the duration of the emergency or disaster and the following payment period.

Q16: Can we enter into a written agreement with another institution to provide courses to our students?

The USDE’s Updated Guidance allows institutions to enter into a written agreement with another institution to provide a student’s eligible program if an institution is unable to continue providing the program due to COVID-19.

Q17: When is a substantive change required for distance education?

Commission policy and procedures currently provide the flexibility for an institution to offer courses via distance education. The Commission does not require prior approval for courses offered via distance education.

 When the institution plans to initiate the very first credit bearing or title IV eligible educational program in which 50 percent or more of the required courses for the program will be offered via distance education, the institution must submit a substantive change request under No. 4 Alternative Delivery Method. The 50 percent applies to all of the required courses for completion of the program including general education and core curriculum courses. The 50 percent applies to courses that are offered in their entirety online (100 percent) although courses utilizing mixed delivery or hybrid methods may be part of the program. The Commission only requires the first program to be reviewed under No. 4 Alternative Delivery Method and the Commission conducts a thorough review of the institution’s approach to distance education at this time. Upon approval by the Commission, distance education is included within the institution’s scope of accreditation.

Due to a change in the federal regulations, the institution must then submit a notification or obtain prior approval for each subsequent change to any existing program’s method of delivery. This applies to programs that are being converted to distance education after July 1, 2020 and when 50 percent or more of the program will be offered via distance education. The method for submission depends on the accreditation status of the institution and is described in detail in the Substantive Change Procedures and in other questions as part of this FAQ. If the institution is temporarily offering programs via distance education under the waiver to accommodate students impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19) interruptions through December 31, 2020, notifications are not required. Should the institution wish to continue offering programs via distance education after December 31, 2020, notifications or prior approval, as appropriate, through the Substantive Change Procedures is required. The Commission has temporarily waived the fees for these notifications and prior approvals for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Q18: Is prior approval required for institutions that currently have MSCHE approval for distance education?

The answer depends on the institution’s accreditation status.

After an institution has had one distance education program approved, the Commission will include distance education within the institution’s scope of accreditation. The institution does not need to submit another substantive change request form for No. 4 Alternative Delivery Method. However, federal regulations now require the institution to notify the Commission or obtain prior approval for each subsequent distance education program depending on the institution’s accreditation status.

If the institution has had any non-compliance action when the Commission issued or continued (warning, probation, or show cause) in the past three years or is under a provisional certification for participation in title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) programs, the institution must submit a request form for a Change in Existing Program’s Method of Delivery to the Commission for prior approval. The institution must submit this form for each program it converts to distance education after July 1, 2020. Remember the substantive change request form must be submitted prior to implementation.

All other institutions will submit required notifications (Change in Existing Program’s Method of Delivery) through the Substantive Change Screening Form in the MSCHE Institution Portal within 30 days of the change.

Q19: We received MSCHE approval for one distance education program. Do we need to submit a substantive change request for a second program that we are planning to offer more than 50% of the program via distance education?

After an institution has had one distance education program approved, the Commission will include distance education within its scope of accreditation. The institution would not need to submit another substantive change request form for 4 Alternative Delivery Method. The Commission only requires the first program to be reviewed under No. 4 Alternative Delivery Method and the Commission conducts a thorough review of the institution’s approach to distance education at this time. Thereafter, the institution would need to submit a notification or prior approval request form for subsequent distance education programs depending on the institution’s accreditation status.

(1) Institutions that have had a non-compliance action (warning, probation, or show cause—issued or continued) in the last 3 years or are under a provisional certification for participation in title IV, Higher Education Act (Higher Education Act (HEA)) programs will have to complete the prior approval request form (Change in Existing Program’s Method of Delivery) located on the website and submit as a Substantive Change.  Prior approval from the Commission is required before implementation.

(2)  Institutions that have not had a non-compliance action in the last 3 years or are not under a provisional certification for participation in title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) programs will submit required notifications (Change in Existing Program’s Method of Delivery) through the Substantive Change Screening Form in the MSCHE Institution Portal  within 30 days of its start.  Prior approval is not required.

Q20: What is a Change in an Existing Program's Method of Delivery?

This change is defined as any change in an existing educational program’s method of delivery from a traditional, face-to-face delivery method to a new alternative mode of delivery (such as distance education or correspondence education). This applies when the institution will convert the program to a new delivery method and will no longer offer the face-to-face option and when the institution will continue to offer both options.  This applies when the institution will be offering 50 percent or more of a credit bearing or title IV eligible educational program via the delivery method. The 50 percent applies to all of the requirements of the program including general education and core curriculum courses. The 50 percent applies to courses that are offered in their entirety online (100 percent) although courses utilizing mixed delivery or hybrid methods may be part of the program.

Q21: How do we submit the required notification to MSCHE for a Change in an existing method of delivery?

Institutions that have not had a non-compliance action in the last 3 years or are not under a provisional certification for participation in title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) programs will submit required notifications (Change in Existing Program’s Method of Delivery) through the Substantive Change Screening Form in the MSCHE Institution Portal within 30 days of the change. Prior approval by the Commission is not required although the institution should ensure that it has obtained all necessary approvals from any other entity, including the board of trustees or a state agency. Each program must be entered separately. If the institution is temporarily offering programs via distance education under the waiver to accommodate students impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19) interruptions through December 31, 2020, notifications and prior approvals are not required. Should the institution wish to continue offering programs via distance education after December 31, 2020, notifications or prior approvals, as appropriate, through the Substantive Change Procedures is required. The Commission has temporarily waived the fees for these notifications and prior approvals for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Q22: How do we submit the Change in an Existing Method of Delivery request form?

Institutions that have had a non-compliance action (warning, probation, or show cause—issued or continued) in the last 3 years or are under a provisional certification for participation in title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) programs will have to obtain prior approval from the Commission by submitting the request form (Change in Existing Program’s Method of Delivery). Prior approval from the Commission is required before implementation. Institutions should download the request form (Change in an Existing Program’s Method of Delivery) from the website and then submit a substantive change in the MSCHE Institution Portal.  Remember, this form should be completed only by institutions that:(1) have had any non-compliance action when the Commission issued or continued (warning, probation, or show cause) in the past three years or (2) are under a provisional certification for participation in title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) programs.  All others should submit the required notification. If the institution is temporarily offering programs via distance education under the waiver to accommodate students impacted by coronavirus (COVID-19) interruptions through December 31, 2020, notifications and prior approvals are not required. Should the institution wish to continue offering programs via distance education after December 31, 2020, notifications or prior approval, as appropriate, through the Substantive Change Procedures is required. The Commission has temporarily waived the fees for these notifications and prior approvals for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Q23: What if my institution is approved for distance learning by the state agency do we have to also obtain approval from MSCHE?

The Commission requires a substantive change review when the institution plans to initiate the first credit bearing or title IV eligible educational program when 50 percent or more of the program will be offered through distance education.

Q24: We have been offering courses via distance education because of the COVID-19 circumstances. Do we need to submit a substantive change if we don’t plan to continue the mode of delivery once it is safe to return to campus?

The Commission’s requirements focus on the offering of at least 50 percent or more of an educational program via distance education. If the institution is offering distance education programs temporarily because of COVID-19, has obtained a waiver from the Commission, and will discontinue offering distance education programs before December 31, 2020, the institution does not need to submit a substantive change request. If the institution does not already have distance education included within its scope of accreditation and it plans to continue offering distance education programs beyond December 31, 2020, for any reason, the institution should submit a substantive change request for No. 4. Alternative Delivery Method as soon as possible , but no later than November 1, 2020.

Q25: What if we are a candidate institution when it comes to substantive change for new delivery? Is it one or two approvals needed?

The Commission’s requirements apply equally to both accredited and candidate institutions. Just like accredited institutions, candidate institutions are required to submit a substantive change request when it plans to initiate the first educational program that offers 50 percent of more of the requirements via distance education. Similarly, candidate institutions would also submit notifications or obtain prior approval for subsequent distance education programs as appropriate to its accreditation status.

Q26: With regard to the requirement to submit a substantive change for alternative delivery method if the institution will continue to offer distance education programs beyond December 31, 2020 (e.g., 50 percent or more through distance education): To what does the 50 percent refer? 50 percent of all courses offered at any given time, or 50 percent of a student's degree program?

The 50 percent applies when the institution will be offering 50 percent or more of the required courses for a credit bearing or title IV eligible program via the alternative delivery method. The 50 percent applies to all of the required courses of the program including general education and core curriculum courses. The 50 percent applies to courses that are offered in their entirety online (100 percent) although courses utilizing mixed delivery or hybrid methods may be part of the program.

Q27: Can you please confirm that institutions with 1 distance education program are now approved to offer programs by this delivery method? And will this be updated on the SAS?

Once an institution has obtained approval from the Commission for its first distance education program under No. 4 Alternative Delivery Method, distance education is considered included within the institution’s scope of accreditation, and the Statement of Accreditation Status (SAS) will be updated.

Q28: For institutions on provisional certification with the USDE, how will MSCHE capture which programs are currently approved for online delivery, so they do not need to apply for online delivery again under the new requirements?

Institutions with provisional certification are required to submit a request form for Change in an Existing Program’s Method of Delivery for each subsequent program converted to distance education after July 1, 2020. The Commission will process these requests as a substantive change and they are reviewed by the Commission through a multi-level accreditation decision-making process. The Commission will take an accreditation action in accordance with Accreditation Actions Policy and Procedures. The action language will include the name of the program and is displayed on the Statement of Accreditation Status (SAS).

Please note that this requirement applies only to programs converted to distance education after July 1, 2020. The Commission is not a repository for the institution and will not be able to compile a list or inventory of programs for the institution. The institution should be sure to maintain accurate records of all submissions to the Commission.

Q29: Our Spring 2020 courses were recorded as “in-person” but changed to 100% online at some point in the term. How will this impact counts regarding distance education and/or student enrollment in online courses?

This information was provided by the IPEDS Help Desk.

IPEDS defines distance education as education that uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor 100% of the time (with exceptions for non-instructional requirements such as orientation, testing, or academic support services). As such, courses (or programs) that began as “in-person” would not be treated as distance enrollment when reporting enrollment in EF or E12.

Q30: My institutions had never taught online or taught only a few courses online prior to Spring 2020. Therefore, we had not completed the IPEDS Distance Enrollment questions in the past. Will we be expected to respond to these questions now?

This information was provided by the IPEDS Help Desk.

Yes. When completing Institutional Characteristics, the institutions should indicate if distance education courses and/or programs are offered during the 2020-21 year. For reporting of enrollment in courses, report them as distance education if they meet the definition of distance education even if the normal mode would not have been distance education. In the case of entire programs (multiple courses culminating in a credential), please consider those programs as completely distance education only if they are normally available completely as distance education (regardless of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic).

Q31: My institution is offering students the opportunity to choose how they attend a course, whether that be face-to-face or online, and they may change format at any point during the term. This will make it difficult to accurately report which students are online and which are in the classroom. How should we report?

This information was provided by the IPEDS Help Desk.

Institutions will need to determine their own method for reporting and should report to the best of their ability. Institutions should treat enrollment as distance education when the students choose to complete it entirely online. Students who choose to meet in-person one or more times during the term would be considered to have taken the course in a non-distance education format.

Q32: What will institutions be expected to report on for the semesters under COVID-19? Or will some institutions be exempt from reporting distance education if it is “only temporary”?

This information was provided by the IPEDS Help Desk.

IPEDS is not currently planning to offer a more nuanced approach to reporting distance education (such as temporary exemptions). For IPEDS purposes, distance education must be reported. It is understandable if it is not possible to report completely accurate data given the imprecision of the course coding. However, IPEDS does ask that institutions make their best effort to report enrollment based on the actual experience of the students being reported.

Q33: I have additional questions about IPEDS reporting. Where can I find answers?

The IPEDS Help Desk is available to provide answers to your questions at 1-877-255-2568.

Additional Resources:

U.S. Department of Education (USDE)

    1. COVID Information: https://www.ed.gov/coronavirus/program-information#highered
    2. FERPA
      1. FERPA and Virtual Learning Related Resources:  https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/sites/default/files/resource_document/file/FERPA  Virtual Learning 032020_FINAL.pdf
      2. FERPA and Virtual Learning – Student Privacy Policy Office Webinar “Student Privacy – FERPA and Virtual Learning During COVID-19”:  https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/?src=fpco
      3. FERPA and COVID-19 FAQ on the health or safety emergency exception under FERPA: https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/resources/ferpa-and-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19
    3.  Regulations:
      1. Institutional Eligibility Under the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=966c2ab1f1d6cc27b60a4b4a8450110e&mc=true&node=sp34.3.600.a&rgn=div6
      2. Student Assistance General Provisions https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=56b5e7c06bbfcf0d4bd442034d96bcb5&mc=true&node=se34.3.668_1162&rgn=div8
      3. Questions and Answers for Postsecondary Institutions Regarding the COVID-19 National Emergency – Office of Civil Rights: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/20200512-qa-psi-covid-19.pdf
      4. Final Distance Learning and Innovation Regulations:
        1. USDE Fact Sheet https://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/reg/hearulemaking/2018/distanceandinnovationfactsheet.pdf
        2. Final Rule  (Unofficial copy) https://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/reg/hearulemaking/2018/distanceandinnovationunofficialreg.pdf

States
Contact the state department(s) of education that grant authority for your institution to operate within its jurisdiction for any state-specific requirements or guidance. https://www2.ed.gov/about/contacts/state/index.html

Systems
If your institution is part of a system of institutions, contact the System office to determine any additional requirements or waivers.

National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA)
https://nc-sara.org/

WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET)

    1. Managing Online Education: https://wcetfrontiers.org/category/managing-online-education/
    2. Licensing Certification and Dispersed Students: https://wcetfrontiers.org/2020/04/30/licensing-certification-dispersed-students-oh-my/
    3. Programmatic Accreditor COVID-19 Guidance Weblinks: https://wcetsan.wiche.edu/resources/covid-19-guidance-weblinks-programmatic-accreditors

Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

    1. Policies and Procedures https://www.msche.org/policies-guidelines/
    2. MSCHE Response to COVID-19 https://www.msche.org/covid-19/