Online Education Regulations Could be Burden for George Mason

The Virginia General Assembly has passed new legislation that will make it easier for George Mason University to provide distance education programs to out-of-state students.

The ability to incorporate online education into George Mason’s academic program was an important goal for the university. Distance education is becoming a viable way to offer more accessible classes at a lower cost for students who are unable to commute to campus or attend a regularly scheduled class.

“Online education is growing as a complement to classroom-based learning, and at times as an alternative to meet the disparate needs of an increasingly diverse student population. We see online education as an increasingly important method for facilitating degree completion and an effective delivery method for specialized graduate programs designed to meet the needs of many of our students who are simultaneously working and balancing family demands while pursuing a degree. We believe we can become a leader in online learning in Virginia, the nation, and the world.”

Out-of-state enrollment at Mason has increased by 47% over the past decade, compared to only a 12%  increase in in-state enrollment. Provost Peter Stearns said that the online programs at Mason would be “aimed strongly at out-of-state student audiences.”

However, providing this service may not be so easy.

“Virginia institutions offering distance education to students residing in other states—including military students—are currently burdened with the requirement of seeking authorization from those states,” Kirsten Nelson, director of communications at the State Council of Higher Education, wrote in a press release. “Thus, institutions are faced with numerous, costly, and complex bureaucratic processes.”

Therefore, in order to provide an online program to an out-of-state student, the university would have to follow rules set by the state the student resides in. Each university would have to work individually with state officials to make sure the programs are within regulations.

Delegate James Massie has proposed a bill currently in the Virginia General Assembly that could help alleviate the regulatory burden. The bill would allow the State Council of Higher Education (SCHEV) to enter into a national program (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, or SARA) that would easily provide distance education. By being part of SARA, institutions like Mason would be signing up to an agreed upon set of regulations that would allow them to offer online education without going through the regulatory process.

The university would not be forced to opt into SARA, but Nelson feels it would be wise to participate, saying,  “To ignore this opportunity risks falling behind other states as they join this cooperative effort. This will create a disadvantage for Virginia’s institutions and the students they serve.”

The regulations will be discussed for a few years, but if put into place they could help Mason “level the playing field” in terms of offering quality and affordable online education.