Federal Student Complaint Regulation – Clarifying Misconceptions

In the hubbub over the ‘state authorization’ issue for distance education, we have not paid as much attention to another part of the regulations released last October.  Each institution must notify all current and prospective students of third-party complaint processes.  In conversations with our colleagues at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), we realized that there was much confusion on this issue.  Below we have provided the wording from the regulation and a table that lists what you should be doing and misconceptions we commonly observe.

And what about last week’s court ruling??  That ruling was targeted only at § 600.9 (c) of the federal regulations.  It has no impact on the following regulation.

§ 668.43 (b) Institutional Information

(b) The institution must make available for review to any enrolled or prospective student upon request, a copy of the documents describing the institution’s accreditation and its State, Federal, or tribal approval or licensing. The institution must also provide its students or prospective students with contact information for filing complaints with its accreditor and with its State approval or licensing entity and any other relevant State official or agency that would appropriately handle a student’s complaint.

The above language can be found in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.

What we know… What we observe…
This new language was released in the Federal Register by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) with the other ‘program integrity’ regulatory changes on October 29, 2010. While related to the ‘state authorization’ regulations, only the USDOE has been consistent in highlighting this issue.  WCET, nor others, have emphasized it very much.
The information is to be provided to both current and prospectivestudents. Institutions who have addressed this issue have tended to put notices where prospective students are likely to notice, but current students might not.
This information is to be provided to both on-campus and distance students. The on-campus part of this requirement is often overlooked.
The student is to be informed of the complaint  process for both:

  • the appropriate state approval/licensing entity, and
  • the institution’s accrediting agency.
With the focus on state approval processes, the requirement for informing about accrediting agencies has often been overlooked.
Informing students of the complaint processes is a federal requirement.  For most states, their regulations do not require that students be informed of the complaint processes. Since this is a federal regulation, don’t ask state regulators how to implement it.  While they can inform you about their state’s complaint process, they can’t interpret what the federal government’s requirements are for informing students.
The effective date is was July 1, 2011. Few institutions are in compliance.The delay in enforcement for state authorization is for seeking authorization, not for the complaint process. While the U.S. Department of Education is not proactively searching for institutions that are out-of-compliance on this regulation, you should be moving toward being in compliance.
There is relief if a state does not have a complaint process or is creating one…

  • For “brick-and-mortar” institutions in the state – an institution may request a one-year extension from the appropriate state agency.
  • For “distance education” – you don’t need to request an extension, but you must show ‘good faith’ that you tried to find one for each state in which you enroll students.
Institutional personnel (and us) have been very confused on this point and received some helpful guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on the complaint process portion of the regulation.

What we suggest…

Okay, you are out-of-compliance and you need to move your institution into being compliant.  You can be in compliance quickly without creating

Is your institutions’s complaint information in place?

an elaborate process.  To best serve students, here are some suggestions on what you can do.

  • Work with your financial aid and admissions offices.  Working with others on your campus will help you in defining where to place this information.  Should you ever be audited, co-locating this information in one spot will make it easy to demonstrate that you are in compliance. And it makes it easier for students to find.
    • Financial aid office – There are several pieces of information that institutions are required to give current students receiving financial aid.  We’ve observed some institutions have put this information off in its own space that would be hard for a student to discover.  Rather than isolating this information, integrate it with the other federally-required information for current students.
    • Admissions office – Similarly, there is federally-required information for prospective students.  Integrate this information into one spot.
    • Review the table provided by the State Higher Education Executive Officers.  They have an updated a state-by-state list of complaint processes as of July 12, 2011.  This summer they are conducting a survey and will have updated information published in a few months.  We received clarification from the U.S. Department of Education that linking to the SHEEO list is not acceptable.  Each institution needs to provide the information directly to current and prospective students.  Note that SHEEO’s state-by-state list is provided for advisory purposes and the ultimate responsibility of verifying their information is each institution’s.  Institutions can use that list to help verify the information that you give to students.
    • Provide student-centric wording describing why they should know about the complaint process.  For the few institutions that have posted complaint information, the wording is often begrudging of the federal government and not helpful to students.  An example:  “In compliance with federal Department of Education regulations, follow this link for information about filing consumer complaints.”  The student is taken to the SHEEO list with no explanation of what it is or what they should do there.  We don’t have a good example to offer and hope that you will submit your candidates for student-centric statements as a comment to this posting.  The statement should probably include:
      • a suggestion of when the student might use the complaint process.
      • advice that most (if not all) external complaint processes require that the student exhaust avenues of complaint internal to the institution before they will consider a grievance.
      • expanded information for the state in which the institution is located. Presumably, the bulk of your students will be in that state and any additional information will be helpful.

It’s also good to remember that you can create something now that gets you into compliance and it can be changed later.  There’s room for improvement as we learn more.

Good luck.  Be sure to share your student-centric statements in the comments below.

Russ Poulin
Deputy Director, WCET
rpoulin@wiche.edu

Megan Raymond
Manager, Events & Programs, WCET
mraymond@wiche.edu

Marianne Boeke
Research Associate, NCHEMS
marianne@nchems.org

Stacey Zis
Research Associate, NCHEMS
stacey@nchems.org

State Approval page:   http://wcet.wiche.edu/advance/state-approval
Twitter:  @wcet_info      State Approval Hashtag: #stateapp

Join WCET!  Support our work on this issue.

NOTE:  In August 2011, we published a follow-up blog post that answered some questions that resulted from this posting.
Megan & Russ

2 Comments

  1. Jessica
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Has anyone used this model, particularly “Work with your financial aid and admissions offices. ” about 8-9 paragraphs down? I agree with that suggestion but am having a hard time picturing it. Does anyone have a site up?
    Thanks!!

  2. Posted October 21, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink | Reply

    FYI…the SHEEO link to the student grievance is broken. Here is the updated link:

    http://www.sheeo.org/stateauth/Complaint%20Process%20Links_October%202011.pdf

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  1. […] continue to inform students about external complaint processes that we blogged about and provided additional follow-up last year: “The institution must also provide its students or […]

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