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Contact Libby May

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April 19, 2013


State, Education Leaders Consider Online Degree Approval Process

INDIANAPOLIS—-During the past decade, the number of students taking online courses has almost quadrupled, with nearly one-third of all enrolled U.S. college students—-including many working adults—-taking at least one online course. State and federal laws, however, and policies have not kept pace with the rapid growth of online programs, and this has limited student access and created unnecessary regulatory barriers that inflate the costs of offering online education.

Several regional and national organizations have joined in an effort to help simplify and streamline the process for authorizing online degree programs that operate across state lines. The Presidents' Forum, The Council of State Governments, the four regional higher education compacts, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education have come together to create the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement. The agreement allows states and institutions to work together to address an existing patchwork of regulation across states while strengthening the states' roles in protecting students from unfair or illegal practices.

A diverse group of higher education leaders and policymakersfrom 47 states met in Indianapolis this week to learn more about the role they can play in implementing the multi-state agreement. State teams gathered to discuss the SARA recommendations and what is necessary to move forward. The meeting represents an initial step toward creating a simpler, less costly approach for regulating online college programs, regardless of the type of institution offering them.

Institutions offering online degree programs across state lines must seek approval from each state they operate in and no two states have the same approach for granting permission.

"This convening is the culmination over two years of hard work on the part of a number of organizations and individuals," said Paul Shiffman, executive director of The Presidents' Forum, a diverse group of colleges and universities offering online education brought together by Excelsior College. "The Presidents' Forum and CSG are tremendously honored to have been a part of this process, and we look forward to watching the regulatory environment evolve over the next few years in ways that benefit students, taxpayers and the institutions serving them."

"CSG is pleased to have helped convene this symposium," said Crady deGolian, director of CSG's National Center for Interstate Compacts. "We had 47 states represented, which speaks to the timeliness and importance of this issue. We look forward to continuing to work on it into the future."

A broad-based group of organizations has worked together to create a new set of baseline standards and procedures for regulating online degree programs. Specifically, this voluntary system would work as follows:
The state in which an institution offering an online program is located will regulate the institution's online offerings nationally. Each home state that agrees to participate in SARA will assure that its institutions meet baseline quality standards and will agree to accept similar assurances from other participating states.
An institution with a substantial "physical presence" in a state or states other than its home state will be subject to regulation by non-home states as well, but only for students served within those states. States will have primary authority for consumer protection and will assure each other they will take this role seriously and have adequate staff and processes in place to handle complaints. Regional and national accreditors will continue to assure institutional quality, and the U.S. Department of Education will continue to monitor providers' financial health.
"What has been crafted here will profoundly improve the states' role in authorizing institutions," said David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. "Rather than having institutions receive separate approval from more than 50 approving entities, participating institutions will only need to receive approval from their home state in order to offer services to students in any state participating in the reciprocity agreements, improving service to students and institutions. This is an idea whose time has come."

"The state laws and regulatory practices of the 20th century no longer work," said Paul Lingenfelter, president of SHEEO. "This convening will provide states the information and tools required to implement an effective, efficient consumer protection system."

"Our hope is this work will make it possible to achieve more-uniform regulation of online degree programs across states that provides strong consumer protection, ensures widespread availability of online programs for all students and simplifies the regulatory burden, thereby creating savings that can be reinvested in serving even more students" said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation.

The organizations hope this week's launch event will be a starting point for states. Following the convening, state team members will identify and explore steps their states will need to take to extend reciprocal approval of online degree programs, including anticipated nonpartisan educational outreach and any policy changes that might be needed to achieve the objectives of SARA. The four regional higher education compacts will coordinate the reciprocity agreements and support state implementation.


The Council of State Governments is our nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. This offers unparalleled regional, national and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships.