Seven Key Takeaways from the State Authorization Webcasts

In partnership with M-SARA (run by MHEC), the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), we offered two webcasts in August with updates on state authorization. The first webcast focused on state and federal regulations. The second provided background on the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) processes and an update on progress made by states in joining SARA.

Archives of the webcasts, the presenters’ slides, and responses to questions that were not verbally covered in each webcast are freely available for your use.

Seven Key Takeaways
To save you some time, I’ve developed a list of seven key takeaways that will help you in your thinking about state authorization. Many of these are not new, but I’m surprised at the on-going misunderstanding and misinformation on some of these issues. Forgive the repetition, but we keep getting these questions. Repetition reinforces the message.The words "state authorization surrounded by all the state names.

1, There is No Federal Regulation or Deadline
I often hear, “I know that we have to be in compliance with federal state authorization laws by July 1 of (fill in the year).” That is not correct. There is currently no federal regulation for distance education. The regulation issued in 2010 (600.9 (c)) was “vacated” by the courts and the Department of Education will not enforce it. Earlier this year, a Negotiated Rulemaking Committee failed to reach consensus on a new regulation for distance education.

Therefore, there is no regulation. There is no deadline.

Don’t be confused about another regulation regarding distance education within a state. Enforcement of that one is delayed until July 1, 2015. But, that regulation (600.9 (a) and (b)) does not cover distance education across state lines.

The Department may issue a new regulation regarding distance education, but that effort is currently on “pause.” OLC (then operating as Sloan-C), UPCEA, and WCET jointly suggested to the Department of Education what should (and should not) be included in any new regulation. Such a regulation may be issued for public comment early next year.

2. States Expect You to Comply Now
You are not off the hook. States expect you to follow their regulations BEFORE you conduct any regulated activity in their states. Depending on the state, this could include direct marketing, enrolling a student, expecting students to participate in a clinical experience. If the student is in another state from where you are located, you are expected to follow their regulations whether there is a federal regulation or not.

3. State Authorization Covers All of an Institution’s Activities in a State
State Authorization regulations are not confined to distance education courses. There are states that regulate direct marketing, having faculty in a state, conducting field experiences (clinicals, practica, etc.) in a state, or just about any other activity that you might be conducting in another state. This is true whether those activities are tied to distance education or not.

4. SARA is Growing
As of the webcast, SARA had nine states that were fully approved to participate in SARA. Several institutions from those states have already been authorized by their state to participate in SARA and now eligible for all the agreement’s benefits.

Looking to the future, SARA expects to have 20-24 states in the fold by the end of this calendar year and around 40 by the end of next year. Progress in each state can be tracked on the SARA website. Talk with the SARA Director in your region should you wish to promote it.

5. State Licensure Programs – Requires Separate Approvals and Not Covered by SARA
Academic programs in fields that require state licensure (such as Nursing, Psychology, Social Work, and others) sometimes require extra approvals from the appropriate boards overseeing those professions in each state. The requirements vary widely by state and profession. Students have been restricted from participating in clinical experiences or kept from sitting for the licensure exam if they attended an institution that was not approved in the state.

SARA does not cover the authorization of academic programs in professional licensure fields. Whether it is a SARA member or not, colleges are expected to follow state regulations regarding these programs in each state.

In the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee discussions earlier this year, it was clear that the Department of Education is very interested in this issue. Once a new regulation is released for public comment, it will not be surprising if expanded requirements for notifying students about an institution’s approval status in each state for each profession in which it enrolls students.

6. The Origin of the C-RAC Guidelines Used by SARA
We have heard many “interesting stories” about the origin of the C-RAC Guidelines for distance education programs. Among the theories that we have heard is that they were the product of for-profit colleges, corporations, or national accrediting agencies. I think I heard someone say that they came from the lost island of Atlantis. None of these are true.

The Guidelines are based on Best Practices developed almost two decades ago by the Council of Regional Accrediting Agencies (thus the initials C-RAC) and WCET. Over the years the regional accrediting agencies have updated the Guidelines. They were used to advise accreditation review teams on items they should exam in their campus visits. Most of the regional accrediting agencies still use these guidelines.

7. Should Institutions Pause in Seeking Authorization?
No.

Given the pause in the federal regulation and the growing adoption of SARA, some wonder if it might be good to wait.

First, you should be following state regulations regardless of the federal regulation.

Second (if the first reason does not sway you and you are more focused on self-preservation), it looks like the federal regulation will return. I would not be surprised to see a short deadline for institutions to be in full compliance in each state in which it serves students. If you wait and discover that a state that is important for your enrollments is not part of SARA, you will probably want to quickly seek authorization. Don’t expect the state regulators to do you any favors. The regulators are great people, but they already have a long line of applications ahead of you. You might get trampled in the rush to seek approval.

Thank You to Our Partners
I am very glad that we were able to partner on these webcasts. Within a few days in July, I learned that there were plans for at least three different webcasts with essentially the same content scheduled for the same August timeframe. It made sense for us to partner to produce these two webcasts in which we could share expertise and delve deeper into questions that you may have.

Thank you to Jenny Parks and the group at MHEC for hosting the reciprocity webcast. Thank you to Laurie Hillman of OLC for expertly moderating the regulations webcast. Thank you to Jim Fong of UPCEA for lending his expertise on the survey that we conducted on institutional progress in seeking authorization. Thank you to all our presenters. And thank you to Megan Raymond for organizing WCET’s webcasts while trying to pull together our Annual Meeting.

Your Turn
Do you have additional takeaways that you would like to share or questions that you would like to ask? If so, please share them in the comment field.

Thank you!Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat

Russ

Russell Poulin
Interim Co-Executive Director
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
rpoulin@wiche.edu
Twitter:  @RussPoulin

WCET’s Annual Meeting includes several sessions on state authorization and regulations.
Join us November 19-21 in Portland, Oregon.

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