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SARA: A Monument to Sanity and Rational Policymaking

As higher education looks to begin a new normal, it’s critical to have the right systems and policies in place to help remove postsecondary barriers for learners. 

I am one of those poor souls who had to manage state reciprocity agreements before State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA). In short–it was messy, confusing and costly, and I was proud to be part the Presidents’ Forum effort, led by Paul Shiffman, to trailblaze this new, national approach to the chaos that preceded it.  

But sometimes, the painful past is all too easy to forget. That’s why I want to paint a vivid picture of what came before SARA for the benefit of those who are discovering and perhaps critiquing the SARA process today. The next generation of higher education leaders needs to understand what created the need for SARA and why this process is one of the most important innovations in recent memory.

States have always had the right and the duty to establish procedures for institutional activity within their borders. Before distance learning became the major force it is today, such activity required that a new institution (either chartered locally or by another state) ask for the privilege of being present within the state. And since most learning was delivered face-to-face in classrooms within educational buildings, presence was a physical thing and easily understood.  The process for becoming approved for activity varied from state to state, but it was universally part of the work done by the state’s higher education authority.

This world made perfect sense. To establish a college or a postsecondary program within a state, the institution needed permission. That required leasing or buying physical classroom space, hiring faculty to be on-site, arranging for parking, and creating offices. In short, such an incursion into another state was very visible (and very expensive).

But with the growth of fully online distance learning, it was suddenly possible to educate students in any state without creating a physical presence–no buildings, property, parking lots or even a local mailing address. In fact, it was often not at all apparent to a state that institutions from other states were educating their students. This became the status quo, with a few states aware of this new form of presence but most oblivious to it. And the truth is, most state higher education authorities had absolutely no way to ferret out such incursions. Distance education left no obvious footprint.  

This covert distance education system worked for a little while–but then the federal government got involved, and true to form made things messy. In a clumsy attempt to compel every state to create and fund a state higher education authority, the feds declared that states had the power to complain about incursions into their geography by out-of-state distance learning providers, and such incursions could cost the guilty parties their federal financial aid eligibility. 

(Ironically, all this federal intervention was driven by antagonism toward for-profit online institutions, but most of them were already authorized to operate in the states that they were interested in. I have always thought that the for-profits had much better lawyers than the rest of us, and so were always several steps ahead of ham-fisted attempts to use bureaucratic barriers to slow their growth.)

So, now we are poised on the doorstep of the chaos that birthed SARA. With this threat to financial aid echoing through the higher ed press, presidents everywhere began asking their lawyers questions about what state authorization meant–and the institutional legal types were forced to figure it out. 

Over the next couple of years, states began to understand that they could require institutions to register with them to educate their students. Better yet, that process could bring in some revenue. Suddenly, all 50 states and four territories were scrambling to create new rules and policies around presence, and those rules were wildly inconsistent.  

Some claimed that if a school had a single faculty member residing in their state, it had created presence. Others explored the ideas that if the school’s computer servers were in their state, then it had created presence. States began dismantling the definition of presence and inventing new hoops through which institutions had to jump to establish good faith.  

In some cases, we had to print the CV of every faculty person we hired and send all the paper–yes, paper–copies to the state authority.  In others, we had to hire a local lawyer to represent our interests. It was embarrassing to anyone who took higher education seriously, and here’s the kicker: State approval was annual, so every school was expected to endure this crazy dance every year in dozens of jurisdictions. And it was wholly ineffective! Even with all this federal pressure, a handful of states blatantly refused to require authorization, and most of the state universities ignored authorization altogether, daring states to sue them.

It was clear this mess needed a major cleanup, and that could only happen if we created a single process that each state would deem reasonable. The best analogy I have is train tracks. When we began building railroads, they were mostly privately owned and manufactured. When you reached the end of one railroad, if you wanted to keep going, you needed to find a new set of tracks and a different train heading toward your destination. This patchwork of train tracks created geographical barriers that made no logical sense to travelers or businesses. 

Before SARA, we were in a similar situation with state authorization–a crazy jumble of rules, interpretations and financial complications created by states that ultimately inhibited access. But in the end, our community created the SARA requirements and advocated for their adoption before every state legislature. I did this lobbying in my state of Connecticut, and it was difficult and ugly, yet SARA prevailed and remains a monument to sanity and rational policymaking. It was a moment when policy was driven by the actual user community and local control was defeated by common sense.  

My point in recapping this history is not just to emphasize what a huge community success SARA has been but to remind readers why we did this, and why we need SARA even more now. The systemic chaos was a massive disservice to our nation’s higher education system and tremendously challenging and disruptive to the students we aim to serve. Today, within the structure of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, states and institutions can work together to remove barriers to postsecondary opportunity and make it easier, more seamless, for students to gain access to the programs they want to pursue. This story should make all new higher education leaders excited to take on the next artificial barrier we all face. May I suggest professional licensure?

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