Higher education leaders are pushing to expand the online market by simplifying the rules colleges must follow to enroll students from around the country.
Under a system based on oversight of brick-and-mortar campuses, colleges generally must obtain authorization from every state where they want to offer online programs. Requirements and fees vary from state to state.
Education leaders say that system is too costly and cumbersome at a time of fast-growing interest in distance learning, with millions of students now using online technology to access higher education.
On Thursday a commission led by former U.S. education secretary Richard W. Riley proposed that states enter reciprocity agreements for regulation of online programs. That would mean authorization from a single home state — upholding minimum standards for institutional quality and consumer protection — would enable colleges to enroll students from other states that volunteer to participate.
“It is my belief that this proposal will make a real difference in the ability of higher education institutions to effectively deliver distance education courses across the country,” Riley, who served in the Clinton administration, said in a statement. He added: “This system will increase opportunity and access for students across the country, bringing us closer to the goal of leading the world in college completion rates.”
Riley’s commission, launched last year by the State Higher Education Executive Officers and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, had 21 members drawn from colleges, accreditors and states.
Next week, members said, representatives from most states will meet in Indianapolis to discuss how to put the plan into action. Key to the proposal are four regional higher education groups that would coordinate the reciprocity agreements.
Paul Shiffman, a commission member and assistant vice president at Excelsior College, an online-focused institution based in New York, said current state-by-state regulations often deter colleges from offering online courses in certain places. Excelsior, he said, recently decided not to register one of its programs in Massachusetts because of expenses and red tape. “It’s a business decision,” he said.
Under the current system, the commission said, a public community college with 257 students in five states could pay $76,100 to comply with regulations, and a public university system could pay $5.5 million to comply with rules in 49 states. Often colleges must bear expense of staff time as well.
But consumer protection is a key issue, the commission warned. “States ... must be vigilant in investigating and resolving consumer complaints,” the commission said in a report. “A prerequisite for state participation, therefore, will be a clear process for receiving and resolving consumer complaints.”
(The Washington Post Company’s Kaplan education unit provides online higher education programs.)