For several years Institutions of Higher Ed who utilize distance components in their teaching and degree programs have been hard pressed to try to understand and meet requirements for State Authorization. In October of 2010 the Department of Education (DOE) articulated that each state is responsible for authorizing education offered to its residents from institutions outside the state. Universities are required to apply for that authorization in every state where they have a presence. Non-compliance came with large penalties. State Authorization laws have been on the books for a long time (Higher Education Act of 1965) so authorization is not something new; rather it is something brought to light by the DOE. Unfortunately, most states were not aware they had the law, some did not understand their laws, and most had no manpower to adequately manage the paperwork from thousands of requests, or enforce the law. Each state had a different set of rules for compliance, different definitions of "presence", and costs to file ranged from 0 to tens of thousands of dollars per state. Hundreds of questions and concerns came to the forefront with no easy answers. Cost and time of securing and maintaining approvals to operate meant many institutions decided not to apply. This meant access for students to quality higher education decreased or was eliminated.
For more than 50 years most states have been collaborating with nearby states through interstate higher education compacts. These collectives provide various programs and services to expand access and excellence in education in their region. MHEC is the Midwestern Higher Education Compact; NEBHE is the New England Board of Higher Education; WICHE is the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education; and SREB, the Southern Regional Education Board (that’s the one for Texas). These four organizations are in a unique position to assist in working through the issues of state authorization nationwide.
The SREB has a longstanding, effective reciprocal arrangement in place among member states for online degrees and courses and in 1998 established and adopted the Electronic Campus (EC). The SREB Electronic Regional Reciprocity Agreement (SECRRA) allows institutions that offer courses and programs that have been reviewed and approved by the institution’s home state, and listed in the EC, to be recognized to deliver online offerings in other SREB states. There are restrictions: the institution has to be a not-for-profit, regionally accredited and chartered in one of the SREB states.
Accreditors, government agencies, and various Higher Ed organizations proposed a nationwide reciprocity agreement, using SECRRA as a model, to address the challenges of state authorization: The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, or SARA. Voluntary membership began in January 2014.
SARA is an agreement among member states, districts and territories that establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education courses and programs. It is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by postsecondary institutions based in another state. SARA is overseen by a National Council and administered by the four regional education compacts.
States become members of SARA while colleges and universities participate in SARA. On May 23, 2015, Governor Abbott signed senate bill 1470 to allow Texas to seek membership in SARA.
Texas will now need to:
· Make any needed changes to statutes or rules.
· Identify an agency to solicit and approve participation of in-state institutions and resolve complaints.
· Identify “portal” agency (if needed).
· Adopt in-state funding model (if needed).
· Develop and submit SARA plan to the state’s regional compact.
Once all the legal components are in place Texas colleges and universities need only “home state authorization” (Texas) to offer distance education to any other SARA member state. The organizations will no longer have to apply individually to each state or pay each states fees or keep abreast of detailed rules for “presence”. So SARA centralizes and simplifies the authorization process for all participants.
Institutions will be paying a yearly fee to participate in SARA. Fees potentially consist of two parts. The first is a required SARA fee paid to the National Council for SARA. This annual fee is based on an institution’s total full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment as shown in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and is assessed as follows:
In addition, states may choose to charge fees to their in-state institutions that want to participate in SARA.
Hopefully Texas participation in SARA is be completed quickly. It will relieve institutions of a huge financial and paperwork burden. It will expand access to students to a variety of educational offerings. It will lead to better resolution of student complaints, reduce educational costs, and enhance the quality of distance education.
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