Streamlining the Authorization of Online Education

E-newsletter Issue #121 | August 29, 2013

State policymakers can learn more about a compact to streamline the process for authorizing online degree programs across state lines during The Council of State Governments’ 2013 National Conference in Kansas City from 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 20. 

Drafters of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, or SARA as the agreement is called, hope it will increase access to degree attainment and reduce costs for students, states and institutions.

“In order to fully realize the benefits of online education, consistency and uniformity across state laws is necessary,” said Marshall Hill, who has been named the new executive director of the national SARA Council. “While the establishment of uniformity across states and institutions 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.”

Session attendees will hear about the need for the agreement, the development process, the specific areas covered by the new interstate agreement, and what steps states and institutions need to take to participate.

In addition to Hill, the session also will feature Paul Shiffman, executive director of The Presidents’ Forum at Excelsior College.

Efforts to implement SARA will begin over the next several months with an eye toward the 2014 state legislative session. Each of the existing higher education regional compacts will assist their member states in ensuring that states wishing to participate in the agreement meet the necessary requirements to join.

The Presidents’ Forum and The Council of State Governments, as part of a grant from the Lumina Foundation, will support these efforts through the development of educational materials intended to help policymakers and institutions understand the goals of the agreement. These materials will be nonpartisan in nature.

In order to participate, states must:
  • Have the appropriate laws, policies, practices and processes for authorizing all accredited postsecondary education institutions that operate within their borders. In most cases, this will require legislative and statutory change; and
  • Have reasonable processes for monitoring authorized institutions and for handling complaints or concerns that are raised concerning those institutions.

The 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.

The organizations have worked the past two years to promote a unified and effective framework that would allow institutions to more easily offer distance learning courses across state line, while promoting student interests and consumer protection.

Essential components of the agreement include the following:
  • Participation in the agreement is entirely voluntary for states and institutions;
  • The state in which an institution offering an online program is 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 the creation of a new authorizing structure.
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