New distance learning agreement draft forthcoming

The online learning drafting team hopes to have language for state legislatures to consider next year.

Drafters of an interstate agreement on distance learning in higher education are entering the final stages of creating a model agreement that would make it much easier for colleges and universities offering online classes to students from different states to get approval from those states.

The draft agreement would allow colleges and universities with online programs to meet controversial “state authorization” requirements—without the huge expense this otherwise would require. The Education Department’s state authorization rules, which would have cut off federal aid to non-compliant colleges, were struck down on a technicality by a federal appeals court earlier this year, but experts agree they could reemerge in the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

The draft agreement would eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies for states and higher-education institutions by establishing “reciprocity” among states that sign onto the effort—in effect creating a single standard for online-education programs to meet in order to gain approval across state lines.

The drafting team, convened by The Council of State Governments’ (CSG’s) National Center for Interstate Compacts and The Presidents’ Forum, met for the sixth time in August. Members include state regulators, staff from the existing regional higher-education compacts, key stakeholders, and compact experts from CSG.

“Serving on the drafting team has been so interesting. Each team member has been highly engaged and has focused on producing a model agreement for the benefit of all stakeholders,” said Sharyl Thompson, vice president of regulatory affairs and compliance at the American College of Education.

The goal of the compact is to reform the current regulatory review and approval processes for postsecondary institutions, especially for those colleges and universities with national footprints that offer degrees across state lines. The project came about as a joint effort between CSG and The Presidents’ Forum, a nonprofit organization that considers pressing issues affecting all sectors of higher education. The Lumina Foundation for Education is providing financial support. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy.

The compact language is nearing completion, and the August meeting marks the last full, in-person meeting of the drafting team. Moving forward, the group will continue to meet electronically and in smaller subcommittees to clarify remaining language.

“As an institutional representative on the team, I am hopeful that reciprocity for state authorization becomes a reality,” said Thompson.

“I’ve looked at the authorization issue from all sides, and reciprocity is still the best answer to meet everyone’s needs, especially the student. We have made great progress on addressing a very difficult issue. I’m glad that we are able to get the Presidents’ Forum of Excelsior College, The Council of State Governments, and the four regional higher education compacts working toward creating a workable agreement,” said Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s (WICHE’s) Cooperative for Educational Technologies.

Before the recent drafting team meetings, CSG convened a public hearing to give stakeholders the opportunity to comment on the initial draft language. Additional opportunities for public comment will be provided. The drafting team hopes to have a national educational briefing in the fall and language ready for consideration by state legislatures starting in 2013.

Without reciprocity, the costs of complying with state authorization for distance-education programs is daunting—around $143,000 per college or university, according to a WICHE survey of 230 institutions. Fifteen percent of school officials said the costs were too high, and six in 10 identified states they likely would not serve if state authorization rules were fully implemented.