Published on 2013/08/09

Grant Awarded to Support Interstate Distance Education

This week, universities across the United States took a major leap forward in reducing barriers to entry for online students.

On August 5, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) released a statement announcing that they have received a $2.3 million grant from the Lumina Foundation. The grant is expected to help WICHE and their seven partners establish national reciprocity agreements for the regulation of distance education programs.

The group of eight — which includes four regional higher education bodies and four higher education associations — came together to create the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), an initiative that will help create a national set of regulatory agreements between states guaranteeing the quality of postsecondary distance education courses and programs. The grant from the Lumina Foundation will help bring SARA to the forefront of discussion across the postsecondary distance education industry.

“Today, online learn­ing is a major part of higher education, and it requires a quality assurance process that’s unbound by state lines,” WICHE President David Longanecker said in a statement.

Despite the recent expansion of online programming, higher education institutions are still considered place-bound as a result of state regulations that can create obstacles — including additional fees and bureaucratic red tape — in the way of enrolling out-of-state students. This approach to education regulation is not keeping up with the rising number of students seeking online programming. In fall 2011 alone, over 6.7 million students enrolled in online courses, according to a study published by the Babson Survey Research Group.

The SARA initiative is expected to help encourage the creation of cost-effective and time-saving regulatory standards, which also aims to protect students.

“Universities are going through a period of extraordinary change, in which they must adapt to the demand and need for increased online learning,” Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said in a press release. “They need a clear and practical regulatory path forward to grow their distance education programs and meet the evolving needs of students.”

In a speech in April, Lumina President Jamie Merisotis raised those issues and said SARA can help drive necessary changes needed in higher education without causing a massive change in roles and responsibilities.

“The role of the states in consumer protection, the Education Department in ensuring financial stability of institutions and the national and regional accreditors in quality assurance will be preserved,” he told the Symposium on the Implementation of a State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement in Indianapolis. “It’s not as clean and simple as a national compact, but it’s far better than what we have now.”

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