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Ten Commandments of Compliance

Joanne Johnson, President, and Kim Rust, Vice President of Compliance
Educational Advisors, Long Beach, California

Not every school has the luxury of a full-time compliance professional on-site providing guidance on issues and answers to every question that comes up.  That said, ignorantia juris non excusat, which is Latin for “ignorance of the law does not excuse”.  Where does this leave the smaller schools or chains where the owner wears many hats, including compliance?

All school types have one thing in common:  they are obligated to know and understand the laws and regulations that govern our sector and comply with them, regardless of size (just ask Keith Zakarin!).  The laws and regulations come from state regulations and individual board requirements, institutional and programmatic standards of accreditation, the Higher Education Opportunity Act, FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), SEVIS (Student Exchange and Visitor Information Service), and state and federal labor regulations.  The list is long and varies depending on the school, if it is accredited, what state(s) it does business in, the type of programs it offers and its student financing options.

How could anyone know all of this?

Other than compliance specialists and school legal experts, it is rare that anyone knows all of the answers.  Typically people learn just what they need to know to do their best to get through each day, hope for the best and that they are not breaking any rules.  That does not mean that regulators and the accrediting bodies don’t expect much more.

On the contrary, regulators and accrediting agencies make every effort to make the information available and feel that it is the responsibility of school owners, operators and administrators to educate themselves and their key management and staff.  Thanks to the Internet, the information we need is available at the click of the mouse.  In addition, a call to a regulator or accreditor is very helpful.  If you’re too busy, then consider asking the pros.  Most compliance professionals will provide phone and email time to their clients to answer questions as they arise, and this can prove to be a cost-effective way to get clear, concise information if you cannot afford to hire a full-time compliance director.

Educational Advisor’s Ten Commandments

To assist schools in establishing and maintaining a compliance-culture, we have come up with common-sense tips (though we’ve heard that common-sense is a thing of the past as most people don’t have it these days).  While the following is not a complete list of do’s and don’ts, it does provide a path to follow to ensure that your organization strives for a compliance culture – the list is something you can post on a bulletin board in the staff lounge or email to employees.  It’s also a great way to stimulate dialogue on the important topic of building a compliance-culture at your school.

ONE: You shall base business practices on the most stringent requirements you are governed by.  

Base policies, procedures, and minimum expectations on the agency that has the most stringent requirement for each area of the school.    Agencies may include one or more of the following:  Federal Title IV; Student Loan Providers; SEVP; Veteran Programs; Accreditation Agency for the School; Accreditation Agency for Program(s); State Licensure / Approval Agency for School and/or Program(s); National / State Program Specific Certification / Licensure for Graduates; Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA); Human Resource Laws and Regulations; and, Workforce Investment Boards.  Conduct a compliance review at minimum annually.

TWO: You shall embrace the industry through continuing education.  

Continuing Education includes instructional programs, attendance at conferences, seminars, and workshops, or activity that brings participants up-to-date in a particular area of knowledge or skills.  Continuing education shall involve all staff through in-services and/or professional development subjects based on their area of expertise.  In-Service: Training focused on improving an employee’s performance within their position. Professional Development: Participation in activities that promote maintenance or furthering education in the area of expertise.

THREE: You shall not recruit students already enrolled in another institution.  

Student recruitment activities shall not include recruitment of students attending other schools.  Support the industry, there are plenty of potential students to go around.

FOUR:    You shall remember your integrity is based on behavior, not words.

Provide clear expectations by demonstrating doing the “right” thing based on adherence and supporting documentation that follows the most stringent regulatory requirements, facts, and best practices to promote the ethics and values of the school.

FIVE: You shall honor and promote the success of your employees, students/graduates, advisory board members, and employers.

Recognize the commitment, extra efforts, and input from employees, students/graduates, advisory board members, and employers by periodically documenting feedback (results of surveys) that states why or why not actions were taken as a result of feedback obtained.  Periodically: At a minimum based on the most stringent regulatory agency governing the school or program.

SIX: You shall not jump to conclusions. Gather all facts prior to making a decision.  

Take a step back – count to 10!  There is always time to gather data and input, after removing the players from the situation, and before making a decision or providing feedback (consider calling Keith Zakarin!).  

SEVEN: You shall not make up data to meet requirements.  

Unethical behavior will cost you time, money, reputation, and your business.  Maybe not tomorrow, next month, or next year….but no doubt soon!  You do not want to be the cause of having to meet the men and women with vests and Crown Victoria’s!

EIGHT: You shall not distribute copyrighted materials without written consent from the author/owner.  

Plan to have time to research and gain approvals, as necessary, to distribute materials authored by an individual or group. 

Note:  a) The internet is not a free for all.  b) Educational materials are not exempt.  c) Obtain written, not verbalauthorization.

NINE: You shall not use white-out to hide incorrect information.  

A favorite of compliance professionals, “Throw out the white out!”  Promote transparency by documenting errors or a change with a line through the incorrect information, documenting next to the error the correct information, initialing and date the correction.  If the document is signed by more than one party, both parties must acknowledge by initialing and dating.

TEN: You shall ensure that student files shall communicate a student’s entire enrollment experience without having to ask an employee for an explanation – every file (to include employee files) should speak for itself.  

And our favorite... DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT!  Date order, most recent on top, what are the facts and outcomes to tell the student’s experience throughout their time of enrollment and as a result of their withdrawal or graduation.  All blanks on any document needs to be filled out or acknowledged as to why not completed.  Signature and dates, as required, and clearly identify who is documenting each part of the students experience.  

Remember, if “it” is not documented, “it” did not happen.