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A Solution for the West – and the Nation
An increasing number of college students, currently more than seven million of them, are taking college courses online. WICHE and other national and regional organizations are creating a new initiative, the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), to safeguard those students and provide them with greater access to the courses they need, as well as to protect state and institutional interests.
States have long had responsibility for authorizing postsecondary institutions to operate, but as innovations in educational delivery foster increased use of technology-mediated courses, there is an accompanying need to ensure program quality and consumer protection. Authorization garnered increased attention in fall 2010, when the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued a regulation requiring any institution offering education programs beyond its state borders to document that it has proper approval from the states in which it enrolls students. Subsequently, ED issued two ‘Dear Colleague’ letters to help clarify the regulation (Federal Regulation, Chapter 34, Section 600.9(c)). That regulation was overturned in court in 2011 on a technicality. However, many states have moved forward on this issue, understanding its importance – and the possibility that ED will revisit it in the future. To learn more about the history of state and federal authorization regulation, visit http://wcet.wiche.edu/advance/state-approval. Right now, institutions that want to provide educational opportunities to students in multiple states may have to grapple with a variety of individual state regulations and complex fee structures, as well as paying fees that can run to many thousands of dollars. Visit the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) website for a Compendium of State Laws and Regulatory Practices and a fee summary, by state.
SARA will provide an affordable, consistent, transparent way for accredited, degree-granting institutions to achieve authorization to provide education beyond the state in which they are based. Participating institutions will be authorized by their home state, eliminating the need for them to obtain individual approvals in all of the states where they serve students. It has been developed through the ongoing efforts and collaborationss of several groups, including the Council of State Governements and the Presidents' Forum, two groups that initially proposed a reciprocal, interstate approach to authorization; and WICHE and the three other regional higher education compacts that worked with regional steering committees to draft a comprehensive reciprocity agreement. More recently, the National Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education released a consensus report on April 11, 2013, "Advancing Access through Regulatory Reform: Findings, Principles, and Recommendations for the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement."
Participation in the reciprocity agreement will be entirely voluntary for states and for institutions. Participating states can use their existing structures for authorizing home-state institutions, but a lead authorizing agency must be identified—and the member states must assure that they have the appropriate laws, policies, and processes for authorizing all accredited postsecondary education institutions that operate from within their borders that want to participate in the reciprocity agreement. In addition, states will be responsible for collecting and sharing information about authorized institutions with other states and for providing consumer protection. A representative from each participating state will serve on the regional steering committee.
The other three regional higher education compacts – the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), and Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) along with WICHE will work together to provide a nationwide blanket of reciprocity and will the compacts' presidents will serve on a national state authorization coordinating board along with representatives of the regional and national accrediting community, state officials, state higher education executive officers, state regulators and leaders of institutions representative of higher education. The regional higher education organizations are currently seeking grant support to begin implementation of SARA.
Cutting State Authorization Costs Over TIme
Once SARA is up and running states will be invited to join SARA. Fees will be collected annually from institutions in SARA member states that have been authorized by the appropriate state entity. Participating states may also charge fees to their home state institutions. The enrollment-based, annual institutional fees will likely range from $2,000 to $6,000.
Over time SARA will deliver much more than cost savings. It will streamline the state authorization process and make regulatory mechanisms more consistent. And most importantly, it will expand access for students to a variety of education options, including distance courses and degree programs.