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New federal regs affect how colleges market themselves

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Commentary
Richard Pokrass

The Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008 has been the source of much consternation on the part of college and university leaders.

The “negotiated rulemaking” sessions, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education over a period of nearly two years following the passage of HEOA, resulted in a series of new regulations that were phased in each summer from 2009-2011. While earlier versions of the law—known previously as the Higher Education Act—largely dealt with issues pertaining to student financial aid, the 2008 version contains many provisions that have a direct impact on the activities of community college communications and marketing professionals and their colleagues in admissions recruitment.

This article is the first in a new bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

The new regulations are part of efforts to increase the level of accountability by the nation’s colleges and universities. These regulations also contain a strong measure of consumer protection for current and future students. Of special note, while there is some political debate about certain aspects of the new regulations, the demand for greater accountability is a bi-partisan one. Most elected officials—whether at the local, state or national levels—are increasingly demanding evidence that their investments in higher education are producing results.

Mandatory information on the Web

As part of the consumer protection aspects of HEOA, higher education institutions have been required for the past several years to post on their websites certain information about required textbooks, enabling students to shop and compare prices. In the wake of high-profile violent incidents at colleges and universities across the U.S., higher education institutions have also been required in recent years to develop crisis communication plans to promptly alert students and employees of incidents on campus. And in the past year, congressional investigators have used “secret shoppers” to identify fraudulent admission practices at colleges and universities.

The Department of Education now has an extensive list of information that colleges and universities are required to post on their websites, including:

  • privacy policies
  • descriptions of facilities and services for disabled persons
  • refund and withdrawal policies
  • transfer of credit policies
  • copyright infringement policies
  • policies on computer use and illegal file sharing
  • information on student activities
  • descriptions of career and job placement services

One of the latest requirements is for each institution to post on its website a net price calculator that allows prospective students and their families to estimate their personal, out-of-pocket expenses to attend the college (The deadline for colleges to include the tool on their websites is Oct. 29). There are additional requirements for posting graduation and retention rates.

Complying with new rules on illegal file sharingOther posting and distribution requirements under the new regulations include: drug and alcohol abuse prevention policies, vaccination policies, and campus crime statistics, all pre-dating HEOA. It should also be noted that federal officials expect the above information to be easily accessible, preferably with no more than three clicks, on each institution’s website.

Watch out for misrepresentation

While not entirely new, the Education Department regulation on “misrepresentation” is one that should be on the radar of community college communications, marketing and admissions professionals. The department has recently updated this regulation. and it will soon hold institutions accountable for violations.

The department defines misrepresentation as any false, erroneous or misleading statement made by a college directly or indirectly to a student or prospective student, a member of the public or an accrediting agency, state agency or the department itself. The regulation focuses primarily on all forms of communication that deal with the nature of educational programs, financial charges for students to enroll in those programs and the employability of graduates.

Federal officials will pay special attention to what they term “substantial misrepresentation.” It is defined as any misrepresentation on which the person to whom it was made could reasonably be expected to rely or has reasonably relied to that person’s detriment.

Misrepresentation can potentially be present in institutional publications—such as catalogs, viewbooks and program guides—on institutional web pages, in various forms of advertising (print, broadcast, outdoor, transit, online and social media) or in statements made by personnel involved in public relations, admissions, financial aid, fund raising or related activities.

According to federal officials, random statements made by student tour guides or in an unofficial capacity by students via social media are not considered substantial misrepresentation.

To avoid charges of misrepresentation, it is important to remember that when making any claims in print, broadcast or electronic advertising, promotions or other forms of communication, be certain that such claims are substantiated by facts. Do not take a chance that nobody will ask for supporting documentation.

Possible federal actions for substantial misrepresentation include revocation of program participation agreements, limitations in federal student aid programs, ineligibility to participate in federal programs and fines, among others. These actions could potentially cost a college millions of dollars in lost revenue or additional expenses.

Two recently enacted regulations related to HEOA are “gainful employment” and a federal definition of a credit hour. While there have been considerable efforts within the higher education community and Congress to block these two regulations, they did become effective on July 1.

ED addresses concerns about new regs, rules The gainful employment regulation resulted from federal concerns regarding excessive student debt compared to potential earnings after graduation. Although it was originally intended mainly to address alleged abuses at some for-profit institutions, the regulation has been expanded to include career-focused certificate programs at all institutions of higher learning, including community colleges. The credit hour definition should be of special interest to institutions that offer non-traditional, accelerated courses and programs.

Keep everyone abreast

Given the new federal emphasis on consumer protection, misrepresentation and gainful employment, it is vital that communications and marketing professionals speak regularly with their institution’s chief academic officer, accreditation liaison officer (the individual who is in regular contact with the institution’s regional accrediting organization), admissions recruiters and financial aid personnel, so that everyone is on the same page, aware of new regulations and providing the same, accurate information to current and prospective students. Speaking with one “voice” has never been more essential.

There are several sources for the latest information on these issues. For a description of the information required to be disclosed under HEOA, visit the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative. Most of the current regulations implementing HEOA disclosure requirements are located here. The Department of Education has just added additional information to its website.

Pokrass, a former president of the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, is director for communications and public relations for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

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