Distance Learning Compact Progresses

E-newsletter Issue #113 | April 25, 2013

More than 6.7 million college students took at least one online course during the 2011-12 school year, making online classes the fastest growing segment in higher education. But while students across the country seem to be rapidly embracing online education, federal and state laws have some catching up to do.

States have adopted numerous approaches to authorizing and regulating online higher education over the past two decades. This confusion has limited student access and created an inconsistent regulatory process for institutions seeking approvals to operate in multiple states.

“In order to fully realize the benefits of online education, consistency and uniformity across state laws is necessary,” said Richard Riley, former South Carolina governor and U.S. secretary of education during the Clinton administration. Riley was the keynote speaker last week at a meeting to debut the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which would be the foundation for a multi-state distance education reciprocity compact.

The educational symposium—convened by The Presidents’ Forum and The Council of State Governments with funding from the Lumina Foundation—provided teams of legislators and higher education officials from 47 states an opportunity to learn about the voluntary agreement and begin considering the next steps required for state participation.

The agreement is intended to simplify and streamline the process for authorizing online degree programs across state lines. Drafters hope the agreement will increase the number of students earning degrees and reduce costs for students, states and institutions—both of which are needed if America is to stay economically competitive, speakers said.

“The trends are clear and the solution is obvious,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation. “More Americans—many more Americans—need college-level learning. In fact, so many more students need to be served that there is simply no way the current system can serve them properly.

“Online learning and other technological innovations have a huge role to play in addressing the system’s capacity issues,” Merisotis said. “In fact, it would be difficult to cite any single trend in higher education that has done more to increase educational opportunity than online learning. It opens doors to all types of students for many reasons, but most obviously because it can reduce costs.”

Efforts to implement the agreement will begin over the next several months with an eye toward the 2014 state legislative sessions. Each of the existing higher education regional compacts will assist their member states to ensure those wishing to participate in the agreement meet the necessary requirements to join. The Presidents’ Forum and The Council of State Governments will support these efforts through the development of educational materials intended to help policymakers and institutions understand the goals of the agreement.

To participate:

  • Each member state will have to agree to a common set of accreditation and regulatory standards to be determined by those member states. In most cases, this will require legislative and statutory change; and

  • States must have reasonable processes for monitoring authorized institutions and for handling complaints or concerns that are raised concerning those institutions.

Some of the essential components of the agreement include:

  • Participation is entirely voluntary for states and institutions;

  • The state in which an institution offering an online program is physically located will regulate the institution’s online offerings nationally and serve as the home state;

  • Each home state that agrees to participate in the agreement will be responsible for ensuring participating institutions meet quality standards;

  • Each member state will agree to accept similar assurances from other participating states; and

  • The home state will use its existing structure for authorizing institutions. Participation in the agreement does not require creation of a new authorizing structure.

The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement was developed as a joint effort between The Presidents’ Forum, The Council of State Governments, the Commission on Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education and the four regional higher education compacts—the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, the New England Board of Higher Education, the Southern Regional Education Board and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. 

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