They won’t be alone. The 2013 Babson Survey Research Group reveals the number of higher education students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 7.1 million. The 6.1 percent growth rate, although the lowest for a decade, still represents over 400,000 additional students taking at least one online course.
A new collaboration, State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA) among states and postsecondary institutions promises to make distance education easier and safer for students by creating a nationwide clearinghouse for what’s approved and available.
Nontraditional students returning to complete degrees stand to benefit in particular. Adult students often rely on distance education to juggle college with other responsibilities. Think of the barriers this removes for someone with three years of credits from two institutions who is working full time, for example. Access to more programs to search for a good fit for schedule and budget makes earning the credential much easier.
“For many students, online classes are key to graduating, which is critical to state goals to increase college completion rates and build a better educated workforce,” says Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) President Dave Spence.”
Who Approves Postsecondary Programs?
It is the job of states to authorize programs offered by postsecondary institutions within their own borders. They also regulate what educational opportunities out-of-state institutions may offer to students who live in their states.
Beginning in 1997, the Southern Regional Education Board brought together representatives from its 16 states to develop Principles of Good Practice and an approval process to permit reciprocity between SREB states for courses and programs included in the Electronic Campus. SREB states participate in the Electronic Campus, an electronic marketplace that now includes almost 20,000 online courses, plus more than two thousand degree programs. This growth has boosted development of online courses and programs and greatly expanded students’ access to them.
As enrollment in distance education programs has grown, so have states’ concerns about the quality of education their residents may receive from out-of-state institutions. And some state regulatory offices began to find it difficult to conduct meaningful reviews and ongoing oversight of the hundreds, if not thousands, of out-of-state institutions operating in their states. Institutions applying for authorization found the requirements — both paper and financial — varied dramatically from state to state and year to year.
How can states fulfill their consumer protection role to be sure their residents are receiving a quality education? The issue: What state is responsible when an institution physically located in one state — the traditional criteria for state oversight — offers education to residents of other states?
In 2010 the U.S. Department of Education reminded institutions that states were responsible for all education offered to residents within their state boundaries, regardless of where this education originated. This regulation applies to all types of postsecondary education for which students qualified for federal student assistance. While this was consistent with existing law, it was overlooked by many institutions. Few states were even aware of the substantial amount of distance education provided to their residents by institutions from other states.
This meant that following state authorization, as it had existed in the past, held major implications for postsecondary institutions and states. Institutions outside the SREB region would incur the costs of securing and maintaining approvals. States faced the potential of thousands of institutions requesting approval, far exceeding the capacity of state authorization agencies. The state authorization process for institutions is both time-consuming and expensive: the application processes, application fees and physical-presence definitions are not consistent.
SARA: A Nationwide Agreement
Now interstate reciprocity is going national. With SREB’s Electronic Campus as a model, states, accreditors and regional higher education organizations have come together to develop a national reciprocity agreement to address the challenges of state authorization.
The result of this discussion has been the Findings, Principals and Recommendations of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA). When it is operational, SARA will require each participating accredited, degree-granting institution to be authorized by its home state and eliminate the need for it to obtain individual approvals in all of the states where they serve distance education students. Institutions in participating states will be recognized to deliver online offerings in other participating states, which are assured that programs have been reviewed and approved under the same standards.
To participate in SARA, institutions will agree to the distance education requirements that all regional accreditors now use. An institution’s home state will be responsible for verifying the institution meets the requirements. Any U.S. degree-granting institution must be authorized to issue degrees by a government — typically a state but sometimes Congress or an American Indian tribe. SARA pertains to approval of distance education courses and programs offered across state lines by institutions. What SARA does is centralize the authorization process for each institution in a single state, called the institution’s “home state.” Colleges or universities in a SARA state only need their home-state authorization to offer distance education in any other SARA member state. SARA has the added benefit of requiring participating institutions to find out where their online students live, something that has not been tracked until very recently by the majority of institutions.
The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements is the organization formed to coordinate this voluntary process for state oversight of distance education. SARA should:
Broaden offerings and lower costs for students
Students seeking online education will have a vastly larger pool to choose from, and good-quality programs will be available from many states and thus easier to access. Today, some students are finding their options limited as institutions choose not to serve students in states with onerous authorization requirements. Students will benefit from a consistent nationwide approach to distance learning. SARA should:
- Expand access to educational offerings.
- Lead to better resolution of complaints from students in SARA states.
- Reduce a rapidly growing institutional cost that is in one way or another passed along to students.
- Enhance overall quality of distance education.
Save institutions time and money
Colleges will no longer have to seek approvals for their degree programs on a case-by-case basis in other states. Working through these varying requirements with multiple agencies is time consuming and expensive. SARA will:
- Enable more efficient provision of distance education to a broader market.
- Reduce the number of other-state regulations to monitor and track.
- Reduce the number of applications and individual state requirements.
- Reduce costs such as staff payroll and time and fees for applications, surety bonds and agent licenses.
Allow states to focus on oversight of their own institutions
The SARA state approval process reassures state regulators and assures their residents of quality distance education programs. States will be able to focus their limited resources on oversight of institutions within their states and out-of-state institutions with brick-and-mortar buildings in their states. Since regulators will focus their reviews on their home-state institutions, they will have more confidence in the review process, and more assurance complaints will be handled and resolved. Additional state benefits from SARA:
- Expands educational offerings to state residents.
- Maintains state regulation of on-the-ground instruction offered by out-of-state institutions.
- Other SARA states will help resolve complaints. SARA states commit to resolving complaints stemming from distance education offered by their institutions.
- Reduces costs for institutions, lessening this particular need to raise fees, and thereby supports affordability.
- Requires no membership cost to states.
A Three-Year Timeline
Indiana was the first state on board. The application of a second state will be announced the first week of April. By the end of 2014, 15 to 20 states will have signed on, and by the end of 2016, we anticipate that 40 to 45 states will participate. Many states need approval from their legislatures, some of which convene every other year. By the end of 2017 almost all states will participate in SARA.
So three years from now, with the system up and running nationwide, students can feel comfortable knowing they are registering for quality programs. States will be able to focus on monitoring institutions within their own states. And institutions can enroll students without worrying about what state they live in.
States, individual institutions and the nation as a whole are striving to support policies to raise postsecondary completion rates and create a better educated workforce. Nationwide reciprocity is a critical building block in those policies.