Online but Out of Reach
By Crady deGolian, CSG National Center for Interstate Compacts Director
When Excelsior College decided to offer online courses in Florida, staff members took five months to complete the state application and then waited another six months before the college was granted approval to operate in the Sunshine State.
“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 opportunities to students in some states. In Massachusetts or Wisconsin, for example, institutions must pay upward of $15,000 per individual program, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.- based law firm Dow Lohnes, which represents numerous higher education institutions. States such as Hawaii and South Dakota, however, require no fees for institutions seeking approvals to operate there.
“The biggest hurdle institutions face is the lack of a uniform application process for approval to operate,” Shiffman said.
That hurdle and others delay access to higher education to a growing number of students who are looking online to further their learning and be able to compete in a changing workforce.
Distance learning is one answer to the needs of the American workforce as new jobs require even higher levels of educational attainment.
“The rapid advances in the Internet and technology have brought the issue of distance education to the forefront of policymakers’ and the higher education communities’ minds,” said Alan Contreras, a former administrator in the Office of Degree Authorization at the Oregon Student Assistance Commission. “Today more colleges and universities are operating across state lines, allowing for greater access to higher educational opportunities.”
Contreras is consulting with The Council of State Governments and The Presidents’ Forum on an effort to develop a state distance learning agreement that would make it easier for colleges and universities to offer online courses in multiple states.
Enrollment in online courses rose by nearly 1 million students between 2009 and 2010, according the Sloan Consortium, an organization dedicated to improving online education in higher education. That represents a growth rate of more than 20 percent, the fastest-growing segment of the higher education population.
In addition, nearly 5.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in the fall of 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to data from the Sloan Consortium.
But many states haven’t prepared for this growth in distance learning and that could block some potential students’ access to these courses. State regulatory policies have lagged behind rapidly evolving technology, limiting institutions’ ability to offer courses on a national scale.
“Aside from the initial application and approval process, many states require continuing maintenance and additional fees in the form of renewals, reports and updates,” said Sharyl Thompson, vice president of Regulatory Affairs and Compliance for the American College of Education. “The net result for institutions is an approval process that is often times costly both in terms of dollars spent and resources required.
“In some states these requirements can ultimately limit student access to online programs,” she said.
In addition to the challenges the current regulatory environment presents for institutions, the growing number of institutions offering distance-learning classes causes a separate set of challenges for state authorizing agencies.
“At the state level, the problem becomes the volume of schools,” said George Roedler, manager of Institutional Registration and Licensing with the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Minnesota has nearly doubled the number of schools registered just in the past year.
“Minnesota has heard from well over 500 schools, most of which the state will either have to register in order to allow them to continue to operate in Minnesota or have institutions withdraw from the state entirely,” he said.
Given staffing limitations and constricting state budgets, the sheer volume of institutions seeking approvals to operate has placed unprecedented burdens on state offices of higher education.
Distance Learning Compact
As more higher education institutions offer online education across state lines, a uniform process for allowing institutions to operate in a state is becoming more important.
Some state leaders and education officials are exploring a solution to these challenges through an interstate agreement known as the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which is being drafted with the assistance of CSG’s National Center for Interstate Compacts and The Presidents’ Forum, in consultation with a drafting team of subject matter experts and the existing regional higher education compacts.
The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement offers a process that could make state authorization more efficient and more uniform. Such an agreement, Contreras said, “has the potential to dramatically reshape the regulatory review and approval process for colleges and universities operating outside their home state.”
The agreement establishes minimum standards for state and institutional participation and shifts the responsibility of authorization to the home state of the institution. 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.
“If a state could be certain that another state was doing a good job of maintaining and enforcing the key standards established in (the agreement), it should be willing to grant approvals to operate to out of state institutions without going through a detailed and expensive evaluation process, which in turn should expand access to affordable higher education opportunities,” Contreas said.
The drafting team is expected to meet at least once more to finalize the draft and begin sharing it more broadly with the higher education community. The goal will be to receive broad-based feedback from both policymakers and various stakeholder groups.
CSG, The Presidents Forum and the drafting team are continuing discussions with the existing regional higher education compacts to create a unified State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement document. The agreement should be finalized by the end of 2012 and ready for legislative consideration and approval in the 2013 legislative session.