Can savings and the spirit of cooperation persuade states to hand over their ability to evaluate distance education providers? With institutions hurrying to obtain authorization in the states they wish to operate in by next summer, an effort to simplify that process prepares to accept its first members.
States have until July 1, 2014, to authorize the colleges and universities operating within their borders -- a particularly onerous policy for distance education providers, which are required to jump through the regulatory hoops of each state in which they wish to make their programs available. The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements , known as SARA, seeks to streamline that process. Instead of submitting dozens of applications to be authorized in every state and territory, institutions may one day need only apply to an agency in their home state. If approved, they will be authorized to operate in every state that has joined SARA.
The work to build that network is being handled by the initiative’s regional partners -- the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, the New England Board of Higher Education, the Southern Regional Education Board and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. All four have hired staff and begun advising states on which local entity should approve distance education providers, and whether legislation is needed to pave the way for membership.
SARA now moves into a new phase: rolling out applications and accepting its first members.
“This is not the end -- it’s not even the beginning of the end -- but it’s the end of the beginning,” said Marshall A. Hill, executive director of SARA’s national council, which includes university administrators, state legislators and members of organizations such as the American Council on Education and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska and South Dakota are likely to be SARA’s first members, Hill said. Then come the states that need to pass legislative changes. States that impose heavy regulatory burdens or derive significant revenue from the fees charged to distance education providers, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee, may take months or even years to join -- if they ever do.
Even if SARA succeeds at recruiting every member state of all four regional compacts, there will still be some important holdouts. New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania are not members of any of the organizations, meaning they will either have to sit out, join or affiliate strictly for SARA purposes.
“Ultimately it’s going to prevail,” said Hill, who hopes SARA will have 20 member states by the end of next year, and double that by 2016. “I think the biggest issue is that states are realizing that their own laws are more complex than they realized.”
The national council held its first-ever meeting on Nov. 1 in Washington, D.C., during which it endorsed the efforts taking place in the compacts. It also set annual membership fees: $4,000 for institutions that enroll between 2,500 and 10,000 full-time students, and $2,000 or $6,000 for institutions below or above that range, respectively.
The fees are a fraction of what colleges and universities spend to bring their programs into compliance with state authorization regulations. Based on a survey  by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, the University Professional & Continuing Education Association and the Sloan Consortium, most institutions expect to spend less than $10,000 on compliance costs. In reality, universities on average spent between $30,000 to $60,000 depending on their size. Private nonprofit four-year institutions spent the most.
“We’re receiving absolutely zero pushback on the fee levels,” Hill said.
In addition to costs and lack of information, survey respondents pointed to time constraints as another major barrier to state authorization. On average, submitting applications and maintaining authorizations consumes half the time of a full-time employee, and the survey notes few institutions had a position solely dedicated to handling compliance.
Jennifer L. Parks directs the SARA initiative for the Midwestern Higher Education Compact. She came to the position from the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, where she secured authorization from 46 different states.
“I guess I’m lucky I have a dry sense of humor and a good sense of irony,” Parks said. “It can be amazingly frustrating -- and I had the full support of my institution.”
That’s not the case at many institutions, Parks said. “There is still a large number of institutions that aren’t really doing anything or aren’t really aware. If they are aware, they're doing something minimal, hoping that something like SARA will happen -- or hoping they don’t get caught.”
Parks said the institutions aren’t deliberately skirting the regulations, but are discouraged by the steep learning curve.
SARA will initially not cover non-degree-granting institutions, but Parks said she hopes the initiative will help nontraditional students by giving them more distance education providers to choose between.
“People are used to sitting in their living room and shopping, maintaining their social connections -- why wouldn’t they access their education that way?” Parks said. “If I can make it easier, more cost-effective and afford greater accessibility to students, that’s great.”