Colleges that offer online courses across state lines, after fighting a federal rule they call unnecessary and outdated, now are concerned about states’ regulatory power in deciding how schools should comply with existing regulations.
Decision makers from hundreds from online colleges from across the country gathered Oct. 3 at the Presidents’ Forum in Washington, D.C., where campus officials and policy experts parsed the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), pitched as a more reasonable approach to enforcing educational standards for schools that offer web-based classes in many states.
Online education advocates created SARA’s provisions after the federal government’s “state authorization” rules proved so onerous that schools nationwide said the costs of complying with state-by-state rules would force them to withdraw from some states.
Complying with state authorization rules would cost $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 implemented. Twenty-nine schools said they would withdraw online classes from Massachusetts, 16 said they would leave Minnesota, and 15 wouldn’t serve college students in Arkansas.
Panelists and policy pros at the Presidents’ Forum said there is lingering concern that even if all 50 states and four U.S. territories can come to an agreement on online education regulations, the federal rules might just be replaced by equally burdensome state rules.
“We should not use [SARA] as a vehicle to create 54 new masters of accreditation,” said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Eaton said state governments, in the forming of SARA laws and bylaws, should not become “the arbiters of academic quality.”
Colleges found to be issuing worthless degrees while skirting basic academic standards, Eaton said, is “a consumer protection issue,” echoing the sentiment of many who have railed against federal efforts to regulate web-based schools.
Michael Goldstein of the D.C.-based law firm Dow Lohnes, a longtime opponent of federal regulations on online colleges, pointed to Maryland as a state that has shown its willingness to regulate in similarly to the U.S. Department of Education.