Getting to Know SARA

Marshall A. Hill
Executive Director, Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education

Getting to Know SARA

To assure compliance with state laws, institutions offering online education to students living in other states now must contact each of those states to determine if, how, and at what cost the institution can become authorized to teach those students. State laws vary widely, as do application procedures and costs. With some states, it’s a fairly straightforward process; for others, it’s complicated, time-consuming, and/or expensive. At present there is no alternative to this institution-by-institution, state-by-state process. For institutions enrolling students in many states, it involves a significant commitment of resources.

Enter SARA – the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement. On April 16-17, 2013, representatives of 47 states gathered in Indianapolis to begin implementation of a state authorization reciprocity agreement for postsecondary distance education. Building upon work of the Presidents’ Forum, the Council of State Governments, and the nation’s four regional higher education compacts —the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), the New England Board for Higher Education (NEBHE), the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE, which took a leadership role on behalf of the compacts) —this new approach is laid out in the report of the national Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education.

The Commission, convened by Paul Lingenfelter of SHEEO and M. Peter McPherson of the American Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and chaired by former U.S Secretary of Education Richard Riley, began its work in June 2012 and released its final report in April 2013. Members of the Commission brought diverse representation and wide experience to the issues.

What’s involved?

Reciprocity allows participating states to work with other like-minded states to agree to a set of common expectations, standards, procedures, and policies for regulating postsecondary distance education within their borders. It’s a voluntary approach: states and institutions can choose to participate or continue to do what they are now doing. States that do participate can have greater assurance that their students will be well-served if they take courses from institutions in other reciprocity states, and they can be assured that any complaints their students have with the offerings of those institutions will be addressed and resolved by that reciprocity partner state.

Participating institutions will see increased efficiency in gaining authorization to offer online courses in other reciprocity states, in contrast to seeking needed authorizations under the current state-by-state approach. For the foreseeable future, high activity institutions will still have to deal with two approval tracks, though: the streamlined reciprocity approach for gaining approval in states that join, and the state-by-state approach for any needed approvals in states not part of the agreement.

What’s next?

The higher education regional compacts will handle much of this work, and advisory committees in each region are working on the initiative. After the regional compacts adopt the necessary policies and agreements, they will each invite the states in their regions to participate. (If any of the three states that are not currently members of a regional compact want to become involved, they may either decide to join a compact or, for a fee, affiliate with a compact for the sole purpose of participating in SARA.) The regional compacts will consider the applications of states within their regions and will approve for participation in SARA the states that meet reciprocity provisions. States that are approved by their regional compacts will then invite eligible institutions within their borders to participate. A national coordinating entity will help ensure consistency across the country, provide consolidated information, measure progress, and deal with appeals.

When will all this happen, and what should institutions do in the meantime?

The regional compacts should by fall 2013 or soon thereafter be ready to invite states to participate. Although some states may be able to move forward in other ways, most states will have to have statutory changes to enable participation. A few states are seeking those changes in current legislative sessions. Assistance for developing statutory language to be considered in future legislative sessions will be available in the coming months.

My standard advice to institutions is to do what they can to support this SARA work, become involved in discussions within their states and regions, but continue to seek needed authorization in any state in which they enroll students. Sooner or later, in my opinion, there will be lawsuits over this, and failure to seek approval is risky.

Where can I learn more?

First, the final report of the national Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education provides a thorough and useful starting point. SHEEO has additional background information and details on each state’s current authorization policies and procedures on its website. FAQs and other helpful communications are under development by various groups and will be available soon.

Final comments.

Getting to this point —which I’ve characterized, in Churchill’s words, as “the end of the beginning” —has required a great deal of good-faith work by a large number of people. The complexities of the issue and the strong views prompted by perspective have made earlier attempts at solutions elusive. Moving forward will require that we continue to do the things that have allowed us to get this far. We need to maintain our focus on broadening the pathways to educational attainment. We need to continue to listen to the legitimate concerns of all affected parties and be flexible about things that don’t require uniformity. And, perhaps most difficult, we need to be willing to change things that no longer serve our most pressing needs.

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Marshall A. Hill, who has represented SHEEO on three Federal Negotiated Rulemaking Panels, played a major role in the development of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement. Before his current role in Nebraska, he served as Assistant Commissioner for Universities and Health-Related Institutions at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board from 1998 to 2005.