Origins of the State Authorization Network: We Missed the Bus, But Caught the Spirit

Ten years ago on April 6th, the first meeting of the initial members of WCET’s State Authorization Network (SAN) was held in Boulder, Colorado. To honor SAN’s 10th Birthday, I asked the founder of SAN, Russ Poulin, to reflect on the history of the state authorization issue and the need for the Network. I also asked a few other folks who were in attendance at the meeting or were part of early SAN coordination to share their reflections as well. Enjoy a look back at the development of SAN!

Cheryl Dowd, WCET | SAN


Russ Poulin – Executive Director, WCET

Surprise!

In late October 2010, I was watching a twitter feed about new federal regulations for higher education and someone noted that there was a new federal financial aid expectation:

“If an institution is offering postsecondary education through distance or correspondence education in a State in which it is not physically located, the institution must meet any State requirements for it to be legally offering distance or correspondence education in that State. An institution must be able to document upon request from the Department that it has such State approval.”

That is a simple enough statement and a reasonable expectation, but I was surprised because there was no mention of such a requirement in the proposed rules that had been released earlier that year. As a result, I made lots of calls, especially to some very helpful staffers at the U.S. Department of Education (the Department).

In my first blog post on the issue, I said: “There has already been some conversation among organizations about how we can work closely to address this.” Answers seemed to lead to more questions.

Institutional personnel were befuddled and the deadline for all institutions to be in compliance was only eight months away.

We’re Going to Need A Bigger Room

I asked Megan Raymond, who runs our conferences, for a room at our Annual Meeting held in early November to provide an update to attendees on this topic. She was great in finding me a fair-sized room, but a good number of the overall registrants showed up.

I told the audience what I had learned. There were lots of quizzical looks and expressions of disbelief. Some were sure that the Constitution would not allow this rule, but weren’t sure why it would not. Several were learning that the United in United States, actually meant that this country is a united collection of 50 states. A blog post with what we learned from states and the Department was published in early December.

We followed up with a webcast in early December with a Department of Education staffer. He was wonderful in explaining the regulation and the expectations for compliance. People did not have to take the word of some weird guy from Boulder (that’s me). The Department appreciated the questions that we and those in attendance at the webcast raised and promised to write a “Dear Colleague” letter addressing the most pressing inquiries. Late December saw another blog post update.

This was getting more complex, institutional personnel are still in denial, and the date for federal compliance was just over six months away.

How We Spent Our Holidays

I talked to lots of people. The Department staff thought that the “good institutions” were already in compliance. When I told them that I was having trouble finding a single private, non-profit or public institution that was in compliance, I was met with a brief silence on the other end.

By this time the WCET Annual Conference was complete, and I engaged Megan to help on the issue. Bruce Chaloux (then of SREB), Maggie Murdock (University of Wyoming), American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC), and us started a list of state agencies and expectations. This is easy, right? That is how we spent our holiday and new year’s vacation. Little did we know how antiquated or unfindable some state rules were…even if you called the office.

We did our best and published the List in January. In my blog post about the release of the “Starter List,” I made the observation that “This ain’t easy.”

And here’s the paragraph that followed that observation:

“I know that people don’t like to hear this, but each institution needs to perform much of the investigation on its own. Given the mix of different regulations in each state and the mix of activities that an institution could be doing in that state, the permutations are too numerous to fit in any matrix.”

I didn’t say “it depends” yet, but that was the sense of it. We also let the Department know that some state authorization processes take a year or more to complete, so even if an institution applied for approval on November 1, 2010 (days after the release of the regulation), there was no way for them to be in compliance by June 30.

Institutional personnel were getting more anxious and compliance was five months away.

We Can Share the Burden

Around this time it became clear that this was a very complex issue and institutions needed help shouldering the burden of state authorization learning and understanding. And so, we invented the idea of the State Authorization Network. In the original call and in the first few years, we often used the following phrase:

“Expecting each institution to navigate authorization regulations in every state is highly inefficient. Working cooperatively, institutions can share the burden.”

The original State Authorization Network was envisioned as a service for state systems or consortia of institutions using a “train the trainer” model. It was not long before we had individual institutions asking to join and that was allowed.

Our promise for benefits included:

“WCET will provide training on the regulations, access to experts on the issue, and networking among participants so that they can share what they learn when navigating each state’s regulations.”

The training started with a two-day meeting in Boulder on April 6-7. In those early days, we also saw the benefit of networking among institutions. State regulators were starting to update their rules or clarify their answers. It was helpful for members to share new information about a state. Once we got started, we would often have questions that began: “Did you hear about the change in” <<fill in the state>>? Together, we were an early alert system for other members.

SAN Advanced Topics Workshop in Boulder in 2016

The Department delivered on March 17 with a “Dear Colleague” letter that provided some insights and relief. Institutions did not have to be in full compliance by June 30, but had to show a “good faith effort” in complying. I was probably not as generous in my appreciation for that change as I should have been, but our questions led to two more Dear Colleague letters with clarifications on expectations and timelines.

Institutional personnel were really taking the issue seriously and we were three months to federal compliance…but the “good faith effort” change allowed for a necessary (if not fully defined) bit of relief.

At the First Meeting…We Literally Missed the Bus, But Caught the Spirit

We had about 50 attendees at that first official SAN meeting in Boulder, CO on April 6-7, 2011. In the agenda, Mike Goldstein (then legal counsel at Dow Lohnes) and I spent 90 MINUTES presenting and answering questions on the federal regulation. Remember that the regulation was only two paragraphs long. I worried about that until I recalled that context was needed, and we had the new “Dear Colleague” letter (which was much longer) to interpret.

The meeting also included sessions with state regulators in which participants could learn about their rules, processes, and concerns. It also was helpful to see that regulators are people interested in working with institutions to protect students. There also was a session about the nascent idea of creating a reciprocity agreement. Paul Shiffman (Excelsior College) was leading that effort. Paul, Bruce Chaloux (SREB), George Roedler (Minnesota Office of Higher Education), Sharyl Thompson (now of HER Consulting), Marshall Hill (Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education) and I were among those on the initial team that worked on the reciprocity idea.

a bus on a busy street
Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

Since participants were coming from across the country and we were keeping them busy, we wanted to treat them to a wonderful meal at an iconic Boulder location at the foot of the famous Flatirons mountain formation. Chautauqua was a music, learning, and lectures series that operated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Chautauqua camp in Boulder is the only surviving camp west of the Mississippi. Great place. Great food.

But, where’s the bus to take us there? We finally contacted someone from the bus company and they forgot. They could get at bus to pick us up an hour-and-a-half after dinner was supposed to start. In about 10 minutes we drew maps, figured out who had cars, called cabs (and Ubers? Were there Ubers then?), assigned people to vehicles, and got everyone headed to dinner.

It worked!! Megan and I knew we had a special group that could roll with adversity and make the most of it. And the food was yummy, scenery wonderful, and the company was fantastic. We learned that by working together and helping each other that we would all succeed.

We were less than three months to federal compliance and things were looking up.

SAN Exceeds Expectations

In the beginning we thought that this was a service for systems but then the bulk of our members were institutions.

logo from the WCET | SAN podcast
logo from the WCET | SAN podcast

As SAN grew, Megan had to go back to her day job. We contracted with Marianne Boeke from NCHEMS to help out part time. Of course, she was great. However, when we needed a full-time director, we were lucky to find Cheryl Dowd who has grown both the membership and the services. And now we say a fond farewell to Dan Silverman who brought innovations to SAN services.

We thought that this would be needed for only a few years until everyone was comfortable with the work. It’s been a winding road with regulations, reinterpretations, reciprocity, rescinded regulations, and reinstated regulations.

Ten years into SAN, institutional personnel are informed and help each other every day. We’re 117 months since the original federal compliance date and we’re looking forward.

I remember the first meeting of SAN. There were lots of questions around its purpose: would it become a viable group? Would the group grow? We felt overwhelmed with the state authorization regulations and what they would mean for each of our colleges.

Shirley Adams – Provost, Charter Oak State College

I think we were all trying to figure out what it would become. For me, it was a life saver as I negotiated all of the 49 state approval processes and it continues to be a life saver as I figure out the nuances of professional development.

One of the strengths of SAN is the sharing among the members. I always take the time to skim the emails that go back and forth from members asking for input on various topics. Those emails have added to my own professional development. I have also posted questions a number of times and received very helpful feedback. It is like having your own sounding board.

SAN is and continues to be so important that we helped form a consortium of colleges. The new members to the consortium are also finding it invaluable.

The information on the SAN website and the webinars are terrific!

Marianne Boeke – Senior Director for Research & State Support, NC-SARA

When WCET-SAN started in 2011, Russ and I wanted to help our colleagues across the country with this complex issue of state authorization. We set up a monthly conference call, a webpage, and a listserve. Quickly our membership grew and soon WCET-SAN was able to offer its members even more services – such as a dedicated website, webinars, face-to-face meetings, papers and reports, and even awards (the SANsational Award). The work that WCET-SAN took on was grounded by the membership itself; every research project, webinar, or meeting was because the membership requested it and was willing to help with the work. WCET-SAN is truly a network.

In the beginning, WCET-SAN members were most interested in helping each other track compliance regulations across states and gaining an opportunity to talk with state regulators (getting questions answered). As we began this endeavor, I naively expected to help institutions for a year or two with these issues and then we would be done. As we dove into the process of state authorization we realized that there was so much more to learn and do. However, three years later, I found myself thinking that when the majority of states join SARA our work with WCET-SAN would be done – nope! In actuality we found ourselves expanding our work to help institutions navigate not only state authorization and SARA but also other federal and state regulations.

The driving force behind WCET-SAN has been Russ Poulin. I remember many times talking with Russ about how WCET-SAN might evolve and grow. Always we came back to being helpful, seeking answers, working collaboratively, engaging our colleagues, and advocating for continuous improvement in state authorization work.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprising, what drew us all to work with WCET-SAN is what still drives us – helping students.

Onward!

Lanna Dueck – Executive Director, Arizona SARA Council

sansational award logo

It was April of 2011. It had only been a couple months prior that I was tasked with a “temporary side project” at the institution I then worked for. This side project was to “research and come into compliance with state authorization across the country.” This side project was only supposed to only take a month or two of reassignment and then I’d be back to business as usual. Well, we all know now how that turned out. But at that time, nearly 10 years ago, that was how many felt. I can say that even then, once I started to delve into this mysterious world of state authorization, I began to doubt that very much. 

That is how I found myself on a plane to Boulder, CO. On a crisp morning I walked into a room full of others trying to make sense of the world of higher education state authorization and I can honestly say that I felt both a sense of relief and comradery. Here were my people. Here were others who were grappling with the same levels of complexity I was. To my never-ending gratitude, this meeting  brought us all together and see if we could make sense of this collectively. This small but mighty gathering was the kernel that started what is today SAN and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. 

From then to now, SAN continues to be what it was to me on the very first day: a place where smart people can come together to solve complex situations by sharing expertise and leveraging the solution generating capacity of the whole. As I did then, I still rely on SAN to keep me in the know with what’s current. Even more importantly, SAN helps me stay connected to others who share the important work we all do, from institutions to state regulators and other stakeholders, in ensuring students have access to high quality education. 

Thank you SAN for 10 years of being part of the solution!

Humble Beginnings, United Present, and SANsational Years Ahead

SAN virtual seminar presenters

These reflections show what the true collaborative effort that brought SAN together. That collaborative spirit continues to be the centerpiece of SAN today. A community was built, and it thrives! What started out as a project to research and manage the many requirements overseen by state higher education agencies in each state, has grown to include not only compliance management by state by state institutional approval requirements, but together we tackle Federal regulation compliance, reciprocity management, and requirements in states set by other state agencies that are outside of reciprocity.

From our group of 50 at the first SAN meeting to a current group of staff members at 800+ institutions nationwide, the idea of a personal approach to learn, share, and celebrate each other’s successes continues. A colleague at one of our institution’s shared the word “schmooze” which is a perfect word to describe the interactive nature of our SAN community.

As we look into the years ahead, SAN will continue to serve its members with resources & research, events & training, and member interaction. If you are not familiar with SAN and wish to learn more, please review the SAN website! You will find information about Upcoming Events and please check out our SAN Membership Page.

Thank you Russ, Shirley, MB, and Lanna for your reflections! Happy Birthday, SAN!

a card reading "happy 10th birthday san! best wishes to san network - here's to another 10 years of outstanding work!" with a graphic of a birthday cake.

Cheryl Dowd – Senior Director, Policy Innovations
WCET State Authorization Network
cdowd@wiche.edu  @dowdcm

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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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