Getting licensed to enroll just one out-of-state student in an online college course can cost a Nebraska school thousands of dollars and an exhaustive program review.
That’s because there are 50 states and about as many different laws for institutions to operate there, even virtually. Those requirements range from a quick email to a thorough program review and up to $50,000 in fees.
But a solution in the works could ease the process for colleges nationwide, and Nebraska is poised to be one of the first states to get on board.
The plan is called the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, or SARA, and it will provide an alternate path for colleges that want to enroll online, out-of-state students for less money and with less bureaucracy. Institutions that join SARA will have to seek approval only once, from their own states, under the plan.
Marshall Hill, executive director of the council overseeing SARA, said Nebraska is one of a handful of states that have already passed the needed legislation to enter the program, which will greatly reduce costs.
“Those costs have to be paid by somebody,” Hill said. “That somebody is students.”
Hill, who left Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education in August, said his agency is coordinating the effort, but four regional compacts will operate it. The Midwest Higher Education Compact’s governing board has already passed its portion of the agreement and made plans to start the application process.
Nebraska is expected to submit its application early next year. Iowa still needs to pass legislation to move in that direction, said Jenny Parks, director of the Midwestern State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement.
Public, private and for-profit colleges will be allowed to join, but only if they are degree-granting, have a national accreditation and meet the U.S. Department of Education’s minimum level of financial responsibility. They also can join only if their own states have joined, since the home state is charged with guaranteeing the quality of the programs it allows into the agreement.
Institutions will pay a flat fee — up to $6,000 annually, depending on the number of students — to be part of SARA.
Not all states are on board yet. Some may not be willing to give up the fees they get from out-of-state universities, Hill said.
But he expects 20 to 25 states to join next year, and 45 by the end of 2015. The timeline is important: The U.S. Department of Education recently enacted rules that will trigger enforcement by the summer 2014 of the patchwork of state laws, most of which were written when states were trying to combat diploma mills.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is licensed for at least some programs in every state but Arkansas. It has taken about $250,000 so far to comply, said Mary Niemiec, associate vice president for distance education at the University of Nebraska.
But the work to remain compliant goes on. Many states require annual renewal, and there are still some programs that need additional approval.
NU will have attorneys review SARA before deciding whether to join, Niemiec said. But she is supportive of the concept and the need it meets.
Online programs are a key part of NU’s growth strategy, Niemiec said. Online-only students from out of state grew by 10 percent last year.
“We need a rational and financially viable means to be able to deliver distance education to students who need the programs that we have,” she said.
At Bellevue University, where about 70 percent of the 10,000 students are online-only, the student body is heavily drawn from the military community. Many are living in other states when they enroll or are likely to move while completing the program.
Bellevue, which plans to join SARA, has spent about $4,000 in fees so far and much more in legal costs and the two staffers it has devoted to research and compliance, said Bellevue University President Mary Hawkins.
Bellevue has lost students or missed out on enrolling them because of where they’re living. Bellevue now investigates every change of address form to be sure a student’s relocation doesn’t trigger the need for a new licensure.
“It’s not to a student’s advantage to be caught in this,” Hawkins said.
She said there’s an important consumer protection involved with making sure online programs are legitimate. But she doubts that the flood of reviews by agencies in other states can serve that function as well as the in-state boards that review the colleges in the first place.
“Once the states have validated these institutions, there should be across-the-board acceptance,” Hawkins.