Grappling With Professional Licensure Disclosures

Federal rules requiring institutions to tell students if they will be qualified to practice their chosen career in their chosen state went into effect earlier this month. Regulatory experts say few institutions were prepared.

July 14, 2020
 
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As of July 1, all higher education institutions in receipt of federal financial aid are required to inform prospective students whether a degree program will qualify them to work in the state where they are located.

The new rule is intended to prevent students from studying for years to enter professions such as nursing or teaching, only to realize upon graduation that they do not meet state-level requirements for employment.

Horror stories of students wasting thousands of dollars on the "wrong" degree for state professional certification are uncommon but not unheard-of. While there are often pathways for professionals to become licensed in other states, additional training can be costly and time-consuming if reciprocity agreements are not in place.

No student wants to make an uninformed decision about their future, said Sharyl Thompson, CEO of Higher Education Regulatory Consulting. Students should know where they will be qualified to work when they graduate. But providing this information to students is not a straightforward task for institutions, she said.

For every educational program designed to meet the requirements of a specific professional license, institutions are now required to determine whether their curriculum does or does not meet the educational requirements of every state. If an institution has not yet made a determination, it must share this with students. Telling a student to look it up themselves does not meet regulatory requirements for compliance.

“I know a lot of admissions offices are nervous about this, because they don’t want to discourage students -- they need the enrollments. But you don’t want a student that is going to go through your whole program only to find out they can’t get a license where they want a license,” said Thompson.

Looking up licensure requirements state by state is a huge undertaking, said Thompson. She estimates that determining the licensure requirements of just one profession in one state can take between one and four hours on average. “Multiply that by all 50 U.S. states and territories, and that will give you an idea of how long this takes,” she said.

Each state may have hundreds of certified professions. And a profession not requiring a license in one state does not mean an institution is excused from looking up and disclosing whether a program meets the educational requirements of professional licensure in other states, said Thompson.

“This kind of research is very labor-intensive,” said Thompson. “Some fields are a lot more complicated to research than others. Social work, for instance, isn’t that hard because most states require that programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. But for fields such as counseling, nursing or teaching, there are so many pathways to different types of licenses, it can get very, very complicated.”

In addition to general disclosures on their website, institutions are required to make direct disclosures to students. This means that prospective and enrolled students must be told in writing whether a degree program meets the educational requirements of the state where they are located. A student’s location must be determined by the institution and tracked over time. When an institution becomes aware that a student’s location has changed to a different state, it is required to provide a new disclosure within 14 calendar days.

Failure to meet professional licensure requirements can have serious consequences. Compliance with regulation is tied to an institution’s continued ability to disperse Title IV federal financial aid for affected programs.

“It is a big deal,” said Thompson.

Despite the potentially high stakes, many institutions are struggling to come into compliance with the new rules, said Cheryl Dowd, director for the State Authorization Network.

“It’s not like there’s this giant tool that has all of the regulations for all of the professions in every state,” said Dowd. To bridge the gap between higher education institutions and professional boards, Dowd and colleagues have been advocating that national associations of licensing boards and accreditors start to collate professional licensure requirements by state to help institutions conduct their research.

Some national associations, such as the American Counseling Association, already provide resources to look up professional licensure requirements by state. But creating these resources is not something that many associations have volunteered to undertake, said Dowd.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing is an example of a national organization that “worked very hard” to create a resource that would be available for July 1, said Dowd. “I can’t say enough about that organization and Nancy Spector, who spearheaded that program,” Dowd said. “But even then, she is at the mercy of what is shared by the states. You can see that some states are very, very detailed in their explanation, and some states are not.”

The NCSBN decided to collect the professional licensure requirements from each state both to help faculty tasked with determining whether their programs meet various state standards and to reduce the burden of state boards that are members of NCSBN being inundated with inquiries, said Spector, director of regulatory innovations at the NCSBN.

“At first we weren’t really sure if we should do anything about the regulation, other than getting the word out to educators about it,” said Spector. “Then we started getting calls from deans and directors asking for help. It was determined if we didn’t do something, our boards of nursing were going to get tons of calls and emails,” she said.

Compiling the database required “a lot of back-and-forth conversations” over many weeks, said Spector. Many boards did not understand what information the NCSBN was trying to collect, she said. “We'd ask specifically what they require of out-of-state nursing programs whose students want to be licensed in their state, such as specific numbers of clinical hours, being substantially equivalent to their programs, etc., and they would send back what they require of applicants -- that they have to have a criminal background check, for example, which is not what this rule is about,” Spector said. “We had to continually explain what was needed. Some states sent us their whole Nurse Practice Act, rather than program specifics. In the end, though, we have created a site that will be valuable for nursing programs to comply with this new regulation.”

There is still a lot of confusion about the regulation among educators, said Spector. Many do not understand that the onus is on institutions to determine if their programs meet state professional licensure requirements, not on state boards. Many educators are asking state nursing boards to send them a letter stating whether their programs meet state requirements. “There are probably 4,000 or so nursing programs in the U.S. that need to comply with this regulation, which means 4,000 letters that boards might be asked to write, which is just unreasonable,” Spector said.

The U.S. Department of Education has not done a good job communicating the new requirements, said Spector. If institutions are aware of the requirements, they often believe that they apply only to online programs, not face-to-face programs.

“I still get emails saying, ‘Wait, we have to do this?’” said Spector. “Many people believe this is just about online. We have to tell them no, this applies to in-person programs, too, and send them the rule. Many programs are telling us that we’re wrong.”

Professional licensure disclosures are just one part of a package of new federal rules that were decided last year through a negotiated rule-making process that also resulted in new rules for state authorization and accreditation, among other topics.

Confusion about the application of the professional licensure disclosure rule to both in-person and online programs may stem from the regulation’s tumultuous and complicated history. Expanded professional licensure disclosure requirements for online programs were drawn up by the Obama administration in 2016. This regulation was due to come into effect in 2018, but at the last minute, the Trump administration delayed it. A court ruled the Trump administration had illegally delayed the regulation, making the 2016 rules effective in mid-2019. Also in 2019, the Trump administration began a negotiated rule-making process to draw up new rules. Consensus was reached by negotiators that professional licensure disclosures should apply to both in-person and online programs. The final rule was published in November 2019 and came into effect July 1.

Given this confusing history, poor communication regarding implementation and the fact institutions are struggling to weather the impact of the pandemic, both Dowd and Spector said they had asked the department if it would consider delaying the July 1 start date. While the U.S. Department of Education has introduced some regulatory flexibility for institutions forced to move classes online due to COVID-19, calls to delay the July 1 start of the new professional licensure disclosure rules were denied.

Despite the confusion surrounding the rule, Thompson, of Higher Education Regulatory Consulting, believes it was the right decision not to delay the July 1 start date. “We would just be having the same conversation in six months’ time,” she said. “There’s never a good time for new regulation.”

Thompson has sympathy for administrators and faculty members who have been asked to address these new rules on top of other pressing responsibilities but believes the Department has made it relatively straightforward for institutions to come into compliance by giving institutions the option of saying that they have not yet made a determination on whether their programs meet state licensure requirements.

“What the federal government wants to see is that institutions are doing their due diligence as best they can,” said Thompson.

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