Newly-passed legislation will reduce administrative costs for online courses

HB 379, Interstate Reciprocity Agreement for Postsecondary Distance Education, sponsored by Rep. Val Peterson and Sen. Ann Millner, was passed during the 2016 Legislative Session. While the legislation itself didn’t receive much attention, it will significantly reduce the costs to administer those programs. The bill received unanimous support by both the House and Senate and has been signed by Governor Herbert.

Why is this legislation necessary?

Currently, if an out-of-state student enrolls in an online course at a college or university in Utah, that institution individually has to get authorization from the student’s resident state before approving the enrollment. For example, a USHE institution is not legally able to provide an online course to a student living in Colorado unless it was approved by the Colorado Department of Higher Education to offer online courses to Colorado residents. This type of oversight ensures a certain level quality of service by colleges and universities to the citizens of any given state. However, regulation varies from state to state. Keeping on top of each state’s requirements is an ongoing, labor-intensive activity.

In recent years as fully online programs have dramatically expanded, the cost and time for a Utah college to secure authorization or exemption to deliver online courses to every state has become cumbersome and costly. USHE institutions offer 84 degrees and certificates entirely online. While the majority of online enrollments are USHE students living in Utah (30% of all 170,000+ USHE students are enrolled in one or more 1,700+ online courses offered by USHE institutions in any given semester), USHE institutions attract students residing in all of the 49 other states.

What does HB 379 do?

HB 379 allows the Board of Regents to enter into a multi-state agreement called the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), which establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education courses and programs. It is intended to make it easier for colleges and universities to offer online courses to students based in another state.

Once a state is approved by SARA, institutions that meet SARA qualifications can apply for SARA institution status. SARA institutions must be accredited by an entity “recognized” by the U.S. Department of Education, whose authority, as specified by the department, includes distance education (USHE institutions are accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities). SARA institutions therefore only need their home state authorization to offer distance education to any other SARA member state.

Does SARA completely replace a state’s authority to regulate colleges and universities?

No. Any degree-granting institution in the U.S. must be authorized to issue degrees by a government entity, typically a state, but can also be US Congress or an Indian tribe. In Utah, the Board of Regents regulates all USHE institutions (except the Utah College of Applied Technology), and the Utah Department of Commerce regulates non-USHE institutions and deals with consumer complaints for all higher education institutions in Utah. SARA pertains to only distance education courses and programs offered across state lines by institutions that have authorization in their home state.

Why is Utah joining SARA?

SARA centralizes the authorization process for each institution in a single state called the institution’s “home state” via the state’s “portal agency.” Colleges or universities in a SARA state therefore only need their home state authorization to offer distance education (e.g. online courses and programs) to any other SARA member state. HB 379 authorizes the Board of Regents to be the portal agency for Utah.

To be accepted into an authorized reciprocity arrangement, a state must have a designated a SARA portal agency, and have sufficient state regulation to investigate and resolve consumer complaints for all degree-granting institutions in the state, a function of Department of Commerce’s Division of Consumer Protection. HB 379 authorizes the Board of Regents to enter into the SARA agreement and serve as the portal agency for Utah.

To date, 37 states have been approved to join the National Council of SARA. The Board of Regents hopes to complete the Utah application process and secure state approval by Summer 2016.

Are Utah colleges and universities required to become approved SARA institutions?

No. SARA is a voluntary agreement and pertains to distance education only. Qualified Utah colleges and universities will decide whether operating under SARA is appropriate for the institution.

By joining this multi-state agreement, out-of-state access to online educational offerings can expand with significantly less administrative time and cost to USHE institutions. In addition, this will lead to better resolution of complaints from students in SARA states.

 

More information on state authorization reciprocity is available from the National Council for SARA.

 

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