Should there be a “driver’s license” for online programs?

Utilizing the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement could be the key to reaching a national standard on recognizing online degree programs.

online-program-successThe American Council on Education (ACE) has released a new paper on the importance of implementing a standardized approach to recognizing online degree programs across different states.

The paper, titled “A More Uniform Way of Recognizing Online Degree Programs Across State Lines, with SARA as a Focus,” is the sixth in a series of Quick Hit briefs about current and emerging topics in higher education attainment and innovation released by ACE’s Center for Education Attainment and Innovation and funded by the Lumina Foundation.

Essentially, the report argues that the process for regulating postsecondary online courses and programs must become more uniform nationally in order to safeguard students and ensure that institutions can provide quality education at a reasonable cost.

The need for greater national uniformity stems from the fact that much of the oversight and regulation of postsecondary education is carried out by the states. However, each state operates in vastly different ways in regards to this issue, especially when it comes to dealing with out-of-state institutions that want to operate within the state.

Furthermore, each postsecondary institution in the U.S. that enrolls out-of-state students via online or distance education must identify the governmental agencies charged to oversee postsecondary education in all of the states, territories and districts; contact them; and determine and comply with their highly varying requirements. Naturally, says the report, this is too cumbersome and costly for such a rapidly growing field like online education.

“The current process is too varied among the states to ensure consistent consumer protection, too cumbersome and expensive for institutions that seek to provide education across state borders, and too fragmented to support our country’s architecture for quality assurance in higher education—the quality assurance triad of accrediting agencies, the federal government and the states,” says the paper.

(Next page: SARA – the solution?)

Like a driver’s license

The main solution offered by the paper comes in the form of SARA, the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which establishes a state-level reciprocity process with comparable national policies and standards for interstate offering of higher education distance-learning courses and programs.

The paper puts this into very recognizable terms when it explains that SARA is “the same concept that keeps us from having to obtain multiple drivers’ licenses.”

SARA is administered by the four regional higher education compacts: the Midwest­ern Higher Education Compact, the New England Board of Higher Education, the Southern Regional Education Board, and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, and began accepting applications from states in their regions in early 2014. Once states are approved, they can begin to enroll eligible qualified institutions.

Participation in SARA is voluntary for both states and institutions, but if it were to grow larger and be hammered out over several years by representatives from postsecondary institutions, state higher education agencies, accrediting bodies and various higher education interest groups, it could make state authorization more effective, efficient and uniform in regard to establishing necessary and reasonable standards of practice and quality, notes the report.

Furthermore, participating in SARA could be less costly for states and institutions, which would in turn be less expensive for students. It is important to note that this extends not just to money, but to time as well: When states have more time to focus on the quality of institutions within their own borders, students will in turn have easier access to greater quality educational offerings thanks to the partnership between the more focused states.

Of course, there will still be issues in distance education that SARA doesn’t cover, such as the need for licenses in different states for preparatory programs (i.e. nursing, psychology and teaching). Additionally, if an institution wants to establish a campus or administrative site in another state, they will still have to go through whatever review and approval processes that state requires.

Regardless, the many benefits of SARA appear to be worthy of consideration.

For more on the requirements and ideas behind implementing SARA as a tool to establish greater national uniformity among online degree programs, read the full paper here.

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