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Plan Seeks to Streamline Transfer of Online Courses Across State Lines


The Chronicle of Higher Education - June 20, 2012 - by Ben Pokross

Leaders in online education are nearing completion of a plan to streamline the procedures required to offer classes in multiple states, saving colleges time and money.

To gain approval for national financial-aid programs, colleges must receive authorization from any state in which they are offering courses. Each state’s rules for granting this authorization vary widely, however, and some are far more stringent than others, said Paul H. Shiffman, executive director of the Presidents’ Forum, a group of online institutions and regulators. While the statutes might differ, however, the essential information is the same. “Most states ask the same questions, in general,” said Mr. Shiffman, inquiring about the personnel, accreditation, and curriculum of the college offering the course. Those questions are now asked in different ways that cannot be transferred from state to state, however.

That’s where the new plan comes in. Called the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, it was created through a joint collaboration between the Presidents’ Forum and the Council of State Governments, with financial support from the Lumina Foundation, a group that promotes student access and success in college. It aims to coordinate these state regulations, resulting, Mr. Shiffman said, in an “enhancement of access, enhancement of choice, and reduction of cost” for these online programs.

Talks about the plan began in early fall 2011, leading to a first draft of the agreement at the beginning of 2012, says R. Crady deGolian, director of the the council’s National Center for Interstate Compacts. A final meeting will be held late this month.

Questions remain over the governance structure of the new program, however. The proposed plan calls for a new national organization to oversee the project, while several regional higher-education groups already in place believe that they should play that role. “Our sense is that we could create the nationwide compact they were looking for through the regional compacts,” said David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. “We have 50 years of experience in reciprocity in interstate commerce in other areas.”

Marshall A. Hill, executive director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education and a member of the team drafting the plan, is hopeful that a model can be created that will satisfy all parties.

The goal of the plan is to spur states to change their regulations to comply with the agreed-upon standards, said Mr. Shiffman.

To this end, when the model is finalized, Mr. deGolian hopes to bring it to the attention of state legislators and lawmakers. “We’ll also begin the project’s education and outreach efforts,” Mr. deGolian said in an e-mail interview. “This will be done in an education-only, nonpartisan format with the goal of simply explaining the logic behind the compact and the specifics of the legislation.”

Mr. Shiffman sees the plan as part of a larger reform in higher education. “We’re never going to advance new systems of governance,” he says, “if we don’t deal with the variety of state statutes.”