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Understanding State Authorization for Distance Education

The EvoLLLution | Understanding State Authorization for Distance Education
Getting a handle on the distance education regulatory environment is a key step to ensuring your institution can compete in the online learning marketplace.

Over the past few years working in distance education you have surely heard of State Authorization and know exactly what it is, right?

Well, probably not, but you know you ought to know. You may have heard about a nebulous process with many costs regarding both application fees and staff time. However, there is information to help you. We at the University of Delaware (UD), along with many other universities, braved this process and you can too!

To understand, UPCEA, WCET and M-SARA released a survey in 2014, titled “What are Institutions Doing (or NOT Doing) about State Authorization?“, which provides a strong overview of the current state of the industry.

So what is State Authorization? You can read The State Authorization Regulation Chapter 34, § 600.9(c) code here. Are you still confused about how this impacts your institution? You are not alone.

Luckily for us there are leaders in distance education in higher education who help decode the process. The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) and Online Learning Consortium (OLC) (formerly Sloan-C) are just a few of such leaders. UPCEA, WCET and OLC recently voiced their joint perspective on the current state of the legislation in this June 2014 letter. WCET also provides a detailed history of this legislation here. These resources are valuable in getting a starting-level grasp of how State Authorization impacts different institutions.

So how has UD approached being compliant with State Authorization?

The first step is to narrow where to put your energy and to gather institutional and programmatic data common to most applications. We coalesced our program data into a chart to send to each state for them to clarify our next steps using the below questions:

  • What type of institution are you? Publicly or Privately funded? Accredited?
  • What type of programs are you offering?
    • How many credit hours in each program?
    • What is the student cost to complete the program?
    • Are there any internships/preceptors/face-to-face training components
  • Do your programs have activities that will trigger a physical presence such as internships? Pre/post licensure? Proctored exams? Local marketing? Local recruitment?
  • What are the most important states for your institution? Bordering states? Other states where your programs have high student enrollment?
  • What are the least important states for your institution, and why? Too costly? Low/no enrollment?
  • Are some of your programs more likely to be exempt/approved? For example, ones that have no physical presence trigger?

The next step is to reach out to the regulatory agencies in all U.S. states and territories, including higher education boards and any state licensure boards related to your specific online programs and certificates to understand what that state requires to be compliant.

The biggest challenge is often getting an accurate contact and hearing back from that contact. The staffing within most states agencies working on State Authorization is transient and very small. UD allotted part of a management position and part of a support staff position to work on this project and we consistently followed up on the status of our applications.

The next challenge is to manage data, the extensive contact list and various communications for each state and state agencies. We created an ACCESS database to provide more accurate data storage and reporting for the stakeholders across campus and within the State of Delaware. The most common sorting we do is by state, by program and by status of application. The data we track includes: state, details of last communication, approved/exempt status, subject areas that require approvals from state licensing boards, the renewal process and costs, the application costs and permission to operation costs, the student enrollment trends in each state (by program if possible) and finally, we track student enrollment within the university’s system or by department.

UD is currently approved or exempt in the majority of states for the majority of our online programs and certificates. For a complete list and to see how we have shared this information online you can check here. UD has submitted several yearly renewals which entail confirming new and existing online program information, paying renewal application fees or yearly fees to operate in a state and gathering state specific student program and demographic data required to maintain compliance.

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) is an excellent resource to assist institutions just starting out in the process. NC-SARA is a voluntary, nation-wide system of reciprocity administered by the four existing regional compacts (WICHE, MHEC, SREB and NABHE) designed to make state oversight of postsecondary distance education easier for states to regulate, and to make it simpler for institutions to participate in interstate distance education. It is funded by a $3 million grant from Lumina Foundation, a $200,000 grant from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and fees paid by participating institutions. Since Delaware does not have a higher education board, we are waiting to understand whether it is at the state level where participation in NC-SARA will be decided.

My recommendations for those beginning or those in the process are to build strong relationships with your academic program leaders (including certificate and degree program heads) because you will need granular information for the state applications, and the academic heads need to know where their programs/certificates/degrees stand in terms of being compliant so they can limit or open student enrollment. In addition to building strong relationships with academic program heads, it’s important to connect with groups like WCET, SHEEHO, your regional compact and NC-SARA. These provide extensive, data-driven resources, including analysis of big legislative changes and state-level contacts and resources. It is also important to understand that because of the back-and-forth of information gathering with academic heads and each state, the process will take significantly more time than you expect. Finally, I recommend institutions be as flexible as possible because the federal legislation and resources at the state level are not static. As staff and policies change, and as your institution adds more online programs, each institution will need to inquire how to adjust to maintain compliance.

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