Cross-State Cooperation

Reciprocity agreements would make the U.S. government's "state authorization" rule less burdensome for institutions and state agencies, but agreeing on standards could be hard.
October 14, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Most distance education experts agree that the eventual solution to the new requirement that colleges be authorized by every state where they operate is reciprocity -- states will agree to accept each others’ authorization, as they do for driver’s licenses and other credentials.

But although some efforts are already under way, finding a reciprocity agreement that appeals to a large majority of states will be a challenge, state officials and representatives of interstate associations said in two panel discussions Thursday at the annual meeting of the Presidents’ Forum.

The state authorization requirement, part of the “program integrity” rules the U.S. Education Department issued in October 2010, requires colleges and universities that offer distance education programs to get approval from every state where they operate, even if “operate” means only “enrolling a student in a particular state.” Over the past year, the House of Representatives has tried to overturn the regulation, for-profit colleges have challenged it in court, and a budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 would block its implementation.

Even if such efforts are successful, though, the state laws requiring colleges to get permission to operate will remain in place, and colleges can no longer plead ignorance, panelists said at Thursday’s event.

The Council of State Governments, which has worked on reciprocity compacts in areas ranging from emergency assistance to thoroughbred horse racing, is collaborating with the Presidents’ Forum on a distance education compact and aims to have a first draft by year's end. “This is not a new concept,” Pam Goins, the council’s director of education policy, said of reciprocity compacts. “The difficulty is to get to a common set of ideas.”

One big question confronting reciprocity efforts is where to set the bar for authorization. The authors of the compact must decide whether to set minimum standards that all states are likely to agree on, or higher standards that would ensure better quality but might seem too onerous for some states. A second is how to deal with fees: authorization can be a costly process, and institutions with students in most states currently pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in individual authorization fees.

Two participants in the state officials’ forum illustrated the dilemmas. George Roedler, manager of private institution registration and licensing at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, described himself jokingly as a “poster child” for stricter regulation. Minnesota has some of the strongest regulations on distance education, including application fees of up to $3,500, with an additional fee of up to $1,000 per degree program, and a nine-page application. Some institutions will reject students from Minnesota rather than deal with the requirements, according to a survey in August by WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, part of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Next to Roedler was Marshall Hill, executive director of the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education in Nebraska, a state that Hill said is traditionally averse to regulation. Unlike Minnesota, Nebraska does not require authorization for programs that enroll students only in online courses and do not have a physical presence in the state.

Any reciprocity compact would have to satisfy legislatures at both extremes. “It’s possible to come up with a way to do this work reasonably,” Hill said. “But it’s a real challenge.”

A perfect agreement “just isn’t going to happen,” said Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at WCET. The goal should be to reach an agreement whereby states function differently, but trust that each other’s systems are effective -- still a tall order, given that some states have few or no regulations for distance education.

Even with legal challenges ongoing, the state authorization rule has already made an impact in Minnesota. Before the federal rule, institutions still were supposed to get permission, but few did, Roedler said. “Needless to say, ignorance is bliss,” he said. “We know now that there aren’t just a few (colleges), there are several hundred of them.”


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