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Border Dispute

October 13, 2009

WASHINGTON -- A group of distance education leaders today plans to discuss how current state-by-state approval and licensing protocols are hampering online colleges, and how those policies might evolve to accommodate colleges that educate students in many different states via the Web.

America’s preeminence, the leaders argue, is at stake, says the Presidents' Forum.

“American labor’s competitive edge requires work force education that avoids entanglement of online and distance educational providers in a duplicative web of processes in order to offer their services,” says a report from a task force assigned by the forum to study the issue.

That report is expected to be the focus of today’s meeting here. Its authors argue that the state-based approval system is centered around the notion that colleges are fixed in a single location that necessarily falls within the borders of a state. Since online colleges aim to teach students in multiple states, they have to go through multiple accreditation processes to achieve a nationwide presence, then satisfy various bureaucratic requirements in each state if they want to keep teaching students there.

This, says John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College (which founded the Presidents’ Forum), can be “sort of a pain in the butt"; more to the point, it forces online institutions to devote a lot of time and resources to acquiring and maintaining licensure in different states. This, the task force argues, “increasingly may act to inhibit student access to essential learning opportunities and at an unnecessarily high cost.”

As an example, Ebersole recounted Excelsior’s efforts several years ago to maintain its authorization to educate students that live in Arkansas. The state higher education commission, he said, instructed the online college to compile the curriculums vitae of every instructor (tedious, given the institution’s reliance on adjuncts) and every syllabus for its 300-odd courses. Then, Ebersole said, the state commission required Excelsior’s provost and the dean of its nursing school (its most populous program) to fly in from the college’s headquarters in Albany, N.Y., to appear at a perfunctory meeting at which neither was called on to speak.

“You have to ask -- for what purpose? Where’s the value-added?” said Ebersole.

To remove these anchors from the necks of online colleges seeking a presence in each state, the task force proposes that regional accrediting organizations and their member states reach a common ground on “a specific template of state standards to which all parties would reference their individual requirements.” Under such a system, online colleges would only have to seek the approval of a single accrediting organization and a single state, just like brick-and-mortar colleges -- except they would get to enroll students from all over the country. The system would be based on “reciprocal judgment"; that is, state governments and regional accreditors would have to trust each other that their accredited institutions were on the level.

The Presidents’ Forum task force report acknowledges that the goal of the sometimes stringent state licensure and approval protocols -- to protect learners from fraudulent online diploma mills -- addresses a very real problem. “But,” Ebersole said, “I don’t know of any regionally accredited institution that’s defrauding anybody. So why don’t we de facto accept regional accreditation or licensure within your home state?”

As it now stands, for online colleges that award degrees in fields such as nursing, the struggle to maintain the authority to operate can get entangled with the struggle to make sure their graduates in a certain state can get licensed to put their degree to use, Ebersole said. In the Arkansas case, he said, Excelsior attempted to pull the plug on an under-enrolled M.B.A. program, but the state threatened to stop granting licenses to its nursing school graduates if it did.

Solving the discontinuity between state licensing agencies could be the key to getting regional accreditors to trust one another’s judgment, according to Alan Contreras, administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization. If professional licensing agencies in different states can align their standards, curricula designed to prepare students to meet those standards will necessarily become more similar, Contreras wrote in an outline for a talk he is planning to give today at the Presidents' Forum meeting.

Cross-state discontinuity among agencies that license nurses, teachers, and other professionals often lie at the root of the gaps in state-to-state degree programs, he said.

As far as persuading states to get on board with “reciprocal judgment,” Contreras said his colleagues on the regulatory side would be more open to trusting the judgment of another state if they could observe data on how well graduates from institutions authorized by that state have performed after graduating. Metrics such as graduation rates, he said, offer no assurances that an institution’s graduates learned what they needed to learn in order to do the work their diploma suggests says they can do. “I think the data that’s out there is pretty patchy,” he said.

 

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