Improving Access and Cutting Red Tape: How SARA Is Reducing Bureaucratic Hurdles to Distance Education
by Marshall Hill
In our country, both K-12 and postsecondary education are largely under the oversight and control of the states. And while states generally oversee education with similar broad goals, policies and provisions, the “down in the weeds” details of their oversight differ substantially. SARA—the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement—was developed to address one troublesome example of such variance.
For institutions that enroll distance education students in states other than their own, learning about and complying with the individual requirements of the various states in which they enroll distance education students has been a major challenge.
Consequently, before SARA came along, institutions were either:
- Spending considerable time, attention and money to secure needed state approvals;
- Denying admission to students from states with compliance processes and costs that the institution deemed unreasonable or financially unjustifiable; or
- Ignoring the whole issue of complying with other states’ requirements and therefore risking legal actions by states and/or affected students.
First, an analogy: I have a Colorado driver’s license. Even though state requirements for obtaining a driver’s license differ somewhat, with my Colorado license I can legally drive anywhere in the United States without having to get separate permission (or a separate license) from other states. Similarly, drivers with licenses issued by other states can drive in Colorado. That’s because states have agreed to accept one another’s judgements about whether a particular person is allowed to drive. This is an example of reciprocity, which in this case involves a mutual exchange of privileges.
Such reciprocal agreements between states are fairly common: On average, each state participates in around 25 of them. The Council of State Governments’ National Center for Interstate Compacts identifies many compacts (a particular form of reciprocal agreement) dealing with a wide variety of issues. Examples include EMS licensing, educational opportunities for military children, adult offender supervision, water allocations from various rivers, and thoroughbred horse racing. In the Center’s words, “State governments often prefer to direct themselves collaboratively when addressing problems that span boundaries, and compacts have proved to be an effective mechanism for states to jointly problem-solve, often avoiding federal intervention.” So have other forms of reciprocal agreements.
Though SARA is not technically a “compact”—SARA states have not adopted identical, SARA-related statutory language—it is a similar reciprocal agreement that states have voluntarily joined. As of August 2018, 49 states (all but California) plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have joined SARA and agreed to deal with out-of-state institutions that participate in SARA in one agreed-upon (SARA) manner, rather than apply their own individual statutes, polices and requirements to those institutions. Once a state joins SARA, it invites its SARA-eligible colleges and universities to participate. As of August 2018, the participating states have approved more than 1,860 educational institutions to participate in SARA. With a few important caveats, those institutions can offer their distance education programs to students in all SARA states, without having to deal with each of those states individually or pay sometimes large state-specific fees. In the spring of 2018, SARA institutions reported enrolling more than two million students via distance education in states other than their own.
Getting to Our Current Status
The diligent hard work of many people has made getting SARA to its current point look easier than has been the case. On the one hand, institutions mainly want to do what they want to do, where and how they want to do it, without having to deal with regulatory complexity and incur high compliance costs. On the other hand, while states want their institutions to be freed from other states’ regulatory burdens and costs, they are also attentive to their own state responsibilities for consumer protection—responsibilities that become challenging to meet when their students are enrolling in distance education in institutions all over the country and the world.
Over several years of discussion, strategies were developed to bridge these different but valid concerns. The two fundamental touchstone questions guiding those discussions were, “What solutions to this state authorization challenge would best serve students?” and, “What approaches would most appropriately support distance education as a means of increasing educational attainment in our country?” As you’d expect, there were (and are) many views to reconcile.
As mentioned above, SARA institutions are able to secure state authorization/approval to enroll online students from other states in a much more straightforward way than non-SARA institutions. With a few important caveats—mainly affecting programs intended to lead to state licensure in fields such as teaching, nursing, allied health disciplines, etc.—they can enroll students from any SARA state by following SARA’s “rules of the road,” rather than a different set of rules for each state. That opens geographic markets, simplifies compliance, reduces institutional costs, and eases the administration of interstate distance education delivery.
SARA states receive benefits, too. They enjoy the partnership of other SARA states to ensure that participating institutions are held accountable by their individual states for meeting SARA requirements. (If a SARA state fails to hold a SARA institution appropriately accountable for violating SARA provisions, the state risks its ability—and therefore the ability of all its institutions—to participate in SARA. That broad institutional desire to participate in SARA provides a strong incentive for states to hold all of their own institutions accountable.)
Therefore, SARA states work to ensure that the institutions they approve to participate in SARA meet SARA requirements, without having to provide such oversight for the thousands of institutions around the country that could be enrolling students located in their state. Through a common public reporting mechanism for student complaints that are not resolved at the institutional level, they can see if there are SARA institutions against which unresolved complaints have been lodged. Through these and other means, they can ensure that in-state students (their citizens, for whom they have important responsibilities) who study via distance education at an out-of-state SARA college or university enjoy a greater level of consumer protection than existed prior to SARA.
Students studying at SARA institutions can be assured that they are dealing with responsible institutions that meet SARA requirements in terms of accreditation, financial stability, state approval and commitment to a high level of support for distance education. If problems develop, they have access to a complaint resolution process designed for interstate issues.
In the fall/winter of 2018, NC-SARA will release a resource we’re calling “The Guide.” A joint project between NC-SARA and WCET’s State Authorization Network, it will provide up-to-date contact information for each state’s authorization officials, both for the state and for selected licensing boards within the state. This information will principally benefit institutions.
We’ll be providing additional information for faculty, students and parents who struggle to understand state authorization requirements and how they can affect students. In partnership with specialized accrediting bodies, we’ll provide links to discipline-specific information.
In 2019, we’ll make available a searchable online catalog of academic programs offered through distance education by SARA institutions that choose to have their programs listed.
And we’ll continue to support a favorable decision by California to join SARA!*
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*Several factors have affected California’s failure to thus far join SARA: The state lacks a central coordinating entity for higher education institutions; the state entity perhaps most likely to do the state’s SARA work has had challenges with its own statutory authorization, funding and state governmental review; and several active and assertive consumer advocacy organizations are skeptical of SARA, principally because SARA allows for-profit institutions that meet SARA requirements to participate. Nevertheless, this author believes that California will eventually join.