Many U.S. states regulate who provides online education to their residents to ensure consumers aren't getting stiffed — and now a group of states is brainstorming how to make the process of regulating these online universities smoother and more cost-effective.
Under Minnesota law, for instance, colleges that provide online courses must register with the state's Office of Higher Education and pay a fee if they want to enroll students in the state. Currently 150 to 160 online schools are registered in the state.
This process ensures that the office can investigate student allegations that faculty members aren't qualified. The office also can look at the schools' financial structure to see if they're likely to be around long enough for students to complete a quarter or semester. And it makes sure they're a real school.
"We know they're in the state, we know they're operating in the state, and we have some control so to speak over them if they do something that upsets a student or that is wrong," said George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing in the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
This law came up recently in the news when Coursera, a company that partners with top universities worldwide to offer free online courses for anyone to take, joined forces with Minnesota institutions.
The office does not regulate Coursera because the company does not offer courses directly, as reported by Ars Technica; Coursera acts as a middleman for universities that want to offer free courses online.
So the Office of Higher Education notified Coursera that its university partners need to register and started sending letters to these universities, one of which has already done so.
But each state has different requirements and charges different fees. If universities or colleges want to offer online classes in more than one state, they have to go to each state for permission.
For the past two years, a team of nine people, including Roedler, has been tackling this problem by creating a model agreement. This State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement could standardize the regulation process across states that adopt the final version.
In August, the team of leaders from state higher education offices, online universities, legislatures and others created its second working draft for public comment. This team's work is funded by the Lumina Foundation and led by the President's Forum, a group of accredited online education providers, along with the Council of State Governments — a public policy sharing association of state officials representing the three state government branches. The drafting team is working with four regional compacts to create a single model document.
Instead of requiring colleges and universities to go to each state office where they want to offer courses, they would only have to register in the state where their organization exists physically. For example, Capella University and Walden University are based in Minneapolis, so they would go through the regulation process of Minnesota only. Once they go through that process and pay fees (which are still being worked out), they can serve students in all the states that adopt the agreement.
"What it would do is it would save schools money, would make things easier for them, would open up access to the students to more schools potentially if they all wanted to participate," Roedler said. "From the state standpoint, it would mean other states would have less to do regulation-wise."
Roedler expects this work to continue for another year and a half to two years. The drafting team plans to have a final version of the agreement by the end of 2012 and move it through the Legislature in 2013.
"People should pay attention to that, because it's something that I think is going to come out in some form," Roedler said, "and it really has to happen."