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Online Learning Agreements Spread Quickly, but Challenges Remain

State legislatures are making online education more portable as they strive for a single standard across state lines.

Education institutions and students have been putting pressure on legislators to make education more portable across state lines in the Digital Era — and policymakers are now paying more attention to institutions that want to provide online degrees to students in other states. But institutions don't always want to follow the rules — an issue that state policymakers and higher education leaders will need to address as part of their drive to protect consumers who want to advance their education. 

Thirty-six states have signed the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), which started in early 2014 to help provide consistent guidelines across state lines for how accredited education institutions can offer online programs.

And institutions across the education space are coming together to support these agreements in places like New York, where it's difficult for the major education systems in the state to agree on issues. Next year, it looks like New York will be signing the agreement.

"That was a very powerful statement for all sectors of higher ed to come behind a single idea," said Russell Poulin, director of policy and analysis at WCET - WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies.

Once a state decides to sign the agreement, individual accredited institutions can choose whether to sign it, and the state education departments evaluate their requests.

The agreement for institutions includes 14 requirements that both the applicant and the state have to check off. First off, they need to be in a state that has joined the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement. They also have to be accredited, offer degrees and demonstrate that they're financially stable. After all, this agreement and the laws it replaces at the state level are designed to protect consumers who buy higher education outside of their state.

As part of this commitment, institutions also pledge to pay any requested fees to their home state, as well as a single fee to the National Council for SARA. This is a much simpler process than before, when they would pay different fees to each state.

Institutions that sign the agreements basically pledge to keep online programs within a certain quality standard as defined by the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education that the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions adopted. That's what happened recently in Ohio when the state signed the agreement in August and later approved the University of Northwestern Ohio as a participant.

"It gave us the ability to recruit in different states without having to do 50 different reports with 50 different sets of rules," said Dean Hobler, vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Northwestern Ohio. "It just made the whole process much simpler." 

But here's the rub. Institutions agree to notify students in writing whether online programs such as nursing and teaching meet licensure requirements in students' home states. However, SARA does not cover professional licensing board approvals, which means that institutions have to verify with each state whether they meet the licensure requirements. And if institutions don't like the state rules, they don't always follow them.

This failure to follow the licensure rules in each state negatively affects students' ability to finish their education. Students spend thousands of dollars for nothing and aren't able to recover it if they choose to walk away. If they do sue and settle, they often have to abide by a gag order, so the problem doesn't appear as widespread.

"I've seen more institutions get in trouble over the licensure issues than just the basic authorization," Poulin said, "and SARA doesn't deal with that."