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Seventeen States Now Part of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement

Last year, a diverse group of higher education and state leaders, accreditors, and regulators led by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley and with deep involvement from APLU President Peter McPherson unveiled plans for an interstate reciprocity system that would streamline regulations and allow universities and colleges to more easily offer online courses across the country.

With Kansas and Missouri joining the Midwestern State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (M-SARA) in November, 17 states have now become part of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) system –which is in part the product of those plans from a year ago. SARA is a nationwide, voluntary initiative of states that establishes baseline standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education courses and programs.

Overseen by the National Council and administered by four regional education compacts, SARA aims to address the patchwork of individual state regulations with their different requirements and varying degrees of complexity and costs. SARA, which opened for membership in January 2014, is significantly streamlining current regulations, reduce costs to education providers, and allow universities and colleges to more easily offer online and distance education courses to students across the country.

The 17 states that have already joined SARA are: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

McPherson, vice chair of the board of the National Council for SARA (NC-SARA), and Paul Lingenfelter, chair of the board for NC-SARA and former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), were actively involved in the organization and implementation of The Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education. The Commission brought together a diverse set of higher education and state leaders, accreditors, and regulators to tackle the challenge institutions face in complying with maze of state laws and regulations. In April 2013, the Commission, led by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, released its report, Advancing Access through Regulatory Reform: Findings, Principles, and Recommendations for the State Authorization Reciprocity, offering recommendations that directly laid the groundwork for the development of the interstate reciprocity system now known as SARA.

The U.S. Department of Education has been examining the idea of a federal state authorization regulation for distance education programs with aims of protecting student consumers from institutions that may not adequately ensure certain quality in their online course offerings. The agency held a negotiated rulemaking committee on the issue, as well as other topics, over spring 2014. Many education groups and institutions believe that state reciprocity agreements should be recognized as a means to state authorization; however, the draft language proposed by the Department was beyond SARA in scope and retained additional controversial elements. In the end, the committee failed to reach consensus on the state authorization regulation and the Department is now free to issue its own proposed rule for public comment. The proposed rule has not yet been released, but is expected possibly in the first half of 2015.

Further information on SARA and details on how states can join the reciprocity system can be found at: http://nc-sara.org/.

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