Distance Learning Compact Update

E-newsletter Issue #110 | March 14, 2013

In order for Excelsior College to offer online courses in Florida, staff members took five months to complete the initial state application and then waited another six months before the college was granted approval to operate.

“The entire process, from start to finish, took nearly one year,” said Paul Shiffman, assistant vice president for Strategic and Governmental Relations and executive director of The Presidents’ Forum at Excelsior College, a private nonprofit institution based in New York that focuses almost exclusively on distance learning.

The lengthy application process is just one hurdle higher education institutions must cross before being able to provide distance learning programs across state lines. A compact known as the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, SARA for short, could make it easier for institutions to reach students interested in distance learning. The agreement initially was proposed by The Presidents’ Forum and The Council of State Governments, and has been developed with extensive collaboration among The Presidents’ Forum, CSG, the Regional Higher Education Compacts and The Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education.

Policymakers and interested parties from the broader higher education community can learn more about the agreement during an educational symposium April 16-17 in Indianapolis. The meeting, sponsored by The Council of State Governments and The Presidents’ Forum, will give attendees the opportunity to review the core principles of the agreement, how it impacts the states and their institutions, and anticipated state regulatory and/or statutory actions that may be required to implement the agreement.

SARA provides a practical framework to achieve interstate reciprocity in the regulation of distance education. The agreement is intended to broaden the availability of and access to accredited online degree programs by reducing state regulatory barriers, while providing appropriate measures for consumer protection.

“The biggest hurdle institutions face is the lack of a uniform application process for approval to operate,” Shiffman said. “Until that is achieved, we will not be able to maximize the potential for online and distance learning.”

Online education is the fastest growing segment of higher education. More than 6.7 million students took at least one online course during the 2011-12 school year, according to the Sloan Consortium. That represents 32 percent of the higher education community’s total enrollment. Colleges and universities are responding to the growing demand for distance learning programs. In fact, 62.4 percent of colleges and universities surveyed by the Sloan Consortium now offer fully online degree programs. That percentage is up from 32.5 percent in 2002.

“SARA establishes minimum standards for state and institutional participation and shifts the responsibility of authorization to the home state of the institution,” said Marshall Hill, the executive director of Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education. “While the establishment of uniform minimum standards and the shift in institutional approval represents a significant change in the traditional delivery model for distance learning programs, institutions, states and students could benefit substantially if consensus can be achieved.”

The central goal of the symposium in April will be to inform and organize state teams about the potential benefits offered by SARA to students, institutions and states. CSG and The Presidents’ Forum, in conjunction with the existing regional higher education compacts, will then assist states interested in joining the agreement by providing technical assistance and legislative support following the meeting.

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