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The Maryland Higher Education Commission is cracking down on institutions that provide distance education to students in the state. But the commission has a problem: It doesn’t know who those distance education providers are.

The commission last month fired off letters addressed to presidents and provosts of institutions that offer fully online programs (seen at the bottom of this article), asking them to self-report if they enroll students in Maryland.

“As of July 1, 2012, higher education institutions offering fully online education to Maryland residents must submit an application to register with the Maryland Higher Education Commission,” the letter reads. “A review of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System has revealed that in 2012 your institution offered fully online programs and enrolled Maryland residents. If any of your current students are Maryland residents and are enrolled in fully online programs, the aforementioned regulation applies to your institution.”

After explaining how Maryland regulates out-of-state providers, the letter presents them with three options: Confirm that the institution enrolls students in Maryland, then pay an annual registration fee of $1,000 and a bond valued at five times the average cost of tuition; confirm that the institution is interested in enrolling students in Maryland, and pay the same fee; or decline any interest in enrolling students in Maryland, thereby barring those students from enrolling altogether.

The letter, which Inside Higher Ed obtained from one of the institutions that received it, comes as the Education Department considers new rules on how to regulate online programs that enroll students in multiple states. As part of those rules, institutions would have to seek out authorization from every state they wish to operate in, which means complying with 50 sets of different regulations and paying 50 registration fees.

While the letter frames the issue of state authorization as one of quality control, some on the receiving end see Maryland engaged in protectionism that clashes with the purpose of distance education. The commission did not respond to requests for comment.

Large institutions -- especially those that teach exclusively online -- often have employees devoted to state authorization, but for smaller and traditional colleges and universities, the issue sometimes gets lost in the demands of running a brick-and-mortar operation. In a 2012-13 survey of institutions in 36 different states conducted in part by WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, more than one-third of respondents said they would avoid seeking authorization in certain states, citing the cost of doing so as one of the major reasons why.

Maryland revised its regulations in 2012, making it more difficult for out-of-state providers to receive a license to operate there. According to WCET, the changes brought Maryland closer to states such as Arkansas, Massachusetts and Minnesota, which distance education providers often avoid entirely as opposed to endure what they see as onerous licensing processes.

“Maryland essentially puts you through a mini accreditation review,” said a provost at an institution that received a letter from Maryland. “If an institution made it a priority, you’ve got a six-week process on your hands of pulling together all the materials they want to get initially recognized -- and then that has be reviewed every year after that.”

According to the letter, recipients have until April 25 to respond -- even if they don’t enroll students in Maryland. The provost therefore described the letter as “the most aggressive attempt to date by any state government to enforce state authorization.”

“You have states trying actively to identify those institutions that are not compliant with their state’s regulations,” the provost said. “I think that’s going to be a wake-up call to the minority of institutions that are not fully registered in all states and have not taken steps to communicate that there are certain states they won’t accept students from.”

IPEDS's Impediments

Maryland based its scattershot approach to regulating distance education providers on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the federal government’s data collection program on everything related to higher education. Known as IPEDS, the system recently started offering preliminary numbers on college students who take online courses and the institutions that offer such programs. That data gives the Maryland Higher Education Commission a lead, but it can’t be sliced to show where online students in Maryland are enrolled.

“The base problem is with the IPEDS data,” Russell Poulin, the interim co-executive director of WCET, said in an email. “That IPEDS count focused only on first-time, full-time students and (for most institutions) is primarily the students who are attending that college in-person. There is no data anywhere on institutional state-by-state enrollments in distance ed.”

Poulin described the wording in the letter as “unfortunate,” and said some members of WCET interpreted it as an accusation.

“One could read the letter as indicating that Maryland has evidence that the institution has distance students in Maryland,” Poulin wrote. “Since the letter was addressed to presidents, it caused lots of ‘what's going on here?’ questions on campuses.”

While the IPEDS data doesn’t show which institutions need to apply for authorization in Maryland, it may provide one explanation for why the state is getting serious on regulating distance learning. University of Maryland University College, the University System of Maryland’s online institution, is one of the largest actors in that market, enrolling more than 34,000 students in Maryland alone during the 2013 fiscal year. Last month, however, the university announced layoffs as it predicted its first enrollment decline since the 1990s.

Recipients of the letter suggested Maryland’s own interests as one of several reasons behind the state’s renewed interest in regulating out-of-state providers.

“One is to protect Maryland’s institutions of higher learning,” the provost said. “It inhibits competition. Another is simply to generate additional revenue for the state.... The third is the most noble and honorable, and that’s to protect the citizens of Maryland from programs out of state that lack integrity.... It’s probably a combination of the three.”

Phil Hill, a higher education consultant who has written extensively about the new IPEDS data, said Maryland's actions show "the unintended consequences of state authorization."

"Maryland's letter is blatant in its goals of getting payment from online providers, and the use of IPEDS data as a mechanism to go after institutions is lamentable," Hill wrote in an email. "State authorization of online programs is becoming a competing power grab by state governments and the federal government, and students will get stuck with the bill. The push might have started with student protection in mind, but this letter is revealing the current usage of regulations."


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