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Online and in Exile

October 23, 2009

In what some believe could be a landmark case in state oversight of online colleges, the Maryland Higher Education Commission this week barred the University of Maryland University College from offering an online doctoral program in community college administration to state residents, citing rules against “unnecessary duplication” of existing programs at historically black institutions.

The ruling still permits UMUC to offer the program to out-of-state residents, creating an unusual circumstance in which a state agency has forbidden a public university from serving its own residents.

James E. Lyons, Sr., the state secretary for higher education, said the proposed program would do “demonstrable harm” to a similar, classroom-based program at Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore. “I am convinced that approving a competing program would harm Morgan’s efforts to develop a more diverse student body,” Lyons wrote in a letter to Susan C. Aldridge, the president of UMUC.

The commission has consistently upheld duplication challenges from historically black institutions in the past. In the 1992 case of United States v. Fordice, the U.S. Supreme Court codified the notion that states should protect those historically under-financed institutions from competition from similar degree programs at nearby colleges.

However, this appears to be the first instance in which the state has forbidden a Maryland college from offering an online program because of its similarity to an existing, classroom-based program.

An online program, UMUC officials have argued, would expand access to many state residents — particularly adult learners who, due to their work schedules or distance from Baltimore, would be unable to participate in the Morgan State program (notwithstanding the fact that classes in that program are held on weekends). Blocking UMUC’s proposal, they have said, would deny many residents for whom commuting to Morgan State is implausible the opportunity to earn a degree in community college administration.

“We are … concerned at the policy level with the precedent that this sets and its impact on higher education in the State of Maryland,” Aldridge wrote in a statement released by UMUC’s communications office. “University of Maryland University College is the quintessential university serving working adults, and this decision prevents many taxpayers in Maryland from earning an important degree from a state university.”

The statement referred to a 2008 Iowa State University study that portended an impending shortage of community college administrators. Lyons mentioned in his letter that two community college leaders had lobbied him to allow UMUC to offer the program. And the Association of American Community Colleges had asked UMUC to develop the degree program in the first place (it also supported the creation of the Morgan State program).

Under the commission’s ruling, UMUC is still allowed to offer its community college management degree in other states; just not in Maryland — where, as of last year, about a third of its total student population resides.

While Lyons guardedly acknowledged the advantages of a mostly online program (the UMUC degree would include nine weekend sessions over three years), he said the commission’s commitment to protecting historically black institutions took precedence in his decision. “I recognize that some potential students may find the UMUC schedule more convenient than the one currently being offered by Morgan; however, the statutory test I must apply is demonstrable harm to Morgan,” he wrote.

Lyons also noted Morgan State’s claim that it is “focused on an incremental plan to convert most of our courses to an online format, to address the need and fill future leadership roles in community colleges.” He added that he “still believe[s] that there may be an opportunity for UMUC and Morgan to engage in a collaborative and coordinated effort to educate the next generation of community college leaders in Maryland and nationwide.”

Morgan State did not reply to requests for comment.

Online colleges have complained for years about state regulation of Web-based distance education. At a meeting of the "President’s Forum" in Washington last week, online education leaders bemoaned the fact that, in addition to acquiring authorization to operate in the state where they are headquartered, they must attain and uphold state authorization in every state where they wish to teach students. Many have argued that in an age when colleges can deliver instruction and award degrees to distance learners in every state and most countries, such protocols are outdated.

It remains to be seen how the Maryland decision could affect challenges to other online degrees from the many historically black colleges that Fordice instructed the state governments to protect. Officials from the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus, a joint effort to provide distance courses in southern states, declined to comment on the matter due to its sensitive nature.

“It’s nearly impossible to predict what the educational leaders at all levels are going to do,” said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland. “But I think it's not desirable to have such a precedent established by the state of Maryland. This is hardly an example in which Maryland is leading the way among the states in promoting higher education. I think it’s quite the opposite.”

 

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