Commission Proposes Reciprocity for Distance Learning Programs

Regulating distance learning programs around the US has presented a challenge for states and the federal government, but a new report published by the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education could serve as the key to unlocking the gridlock. The commission, which is comprised of accreditors from around the country, proposed that states adopt a “reciprocity system” which will make it easier for universities around the country to offer online courses that will be accepted for college credit in schools outside their own immediate locality.

The report – titled Advancing Access through Regulatory Reform: Findings, Principles and Recommendations for the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement – could usher in a era of increased cooperation between distance learning providers and will expand access to higher education for American students.

According to Richard Riley, the former Secretary of Education and chairman of the commission, the impact of SARA will be felt by the higher education system in the United States for a long time.

“The importance of this work cannot be overstated. The nearly 7 million students using online technology to access postsecondary education will benefit immensely from the consumer protection and quality assurances built into the commission’s proposed system of interstate reciprocity,” Riley says.

“This system will increase opportunity and access for students across the country, bringing us closer to President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college completion rates by 2020,” Riley says.

The adoption of the proposed reciprocity system depends on the participants first adopting a nationwide standard for regulating distance education programs. This will allow institutions to offer distance education opportunities in any of the participating states, as long as they meet the requirements in place in their own state.

The interstate reciprocity system would follow along three guiding principles:

1) The home state of an institution would be responsible for regulating and overseeing that institution’s work nationwide. Each state would ensure that its institutions meet a set of agreed-upon national baseline standards, but could require additional oversight and regulation of its schools as it sees fit.

2) Other states in which the institution in question would offer distance education programs could not regulate that institution unless the institution has a “physical presence” in the state. Most regulatory activity over the last two decades has involved defining the concept of physical presence. A core concept in the commission’s recommendations, therefore, is a proposed definition of physical presence for all participating states.

3) Institutions with a physical presence in another state, however, would be subject to regulations of that other state, but only for work done within that state.