Distance education via online learning may be in a for a huge shake-up due to this proposal

While experts concede how important it is to strengthen consumer protection, they also believe the Department's attempt to strengthen state oversight is misguided.

Institutions leveraging out-of-state online learning may face deeper state regulation constraints due to a proposal from the Department of Education. While the proposal aims to increase consumer protection, some experts believe it could disproportionately hurt smaller schools and the students that they represent.

The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) has provided institutions within every state, save California, with standardized rules and regulations to adhere to in order to enroll students from far and wide. The reciprocity agreement helped institutions dodge the complicated web of requirements that they’d have to follow to seek authorization from each state.

While SARA has helped nearly 2 million students enroll online in well-known online institutions, like the University of Phoenix and Western Governors University, the agreement has deeply limited state oversight. For example, a January document from Department officials says SARA allows institutions “to evade State rules” and leverages its veto power to override any proposed changes to current distance education policy. As a result, federal officials believe SARA “prioritizes administrative convenience over student and taxpayer protection,” failing to protect them in the process.

While experts concede how important it is to strengthen consumer protection, they also believe the Department’s plan to strengthen state oversight is misguided. Robert Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), forecasts that smaller institutions will be unable to navigate the complex world of state-to-state regulation compliance.

“These standards must be set in a manner that establishes the same playing field for all institutions in member states,” Anderson wrote to Department officials.

With smaller institutions unable to keep up with bewildering compliance work, students who may rely on these schools will end up being hurt the most, says Shambhu Kadel, executive director of international education at KBA Global, an international education and migration consultancy service.

“I know how important online learning can be for students who might not have access to traditional brick-and-mortar schools,” he said in a statement to University Business. “It would be a real shame to see those opportunities disappear because of legal red tape.”

Consequently, it may create consolidation in the online learning space; only the biggest and most well-resourced institutions would be able to navigate the complex regulations.

The balancing act between protecting smaller institutions and the students they serve is a “tricky balance to strike,” Kadel concedes. Institutions, especially for-profits, have recently come to light for defrauding in-need students.

“At the end of the day, I hope that schools, states and the federal government can work together to find a way forward that preserves the benefits of online education while also ensuring accountability and compliance,” Kadel says. “Because when done right, online learning has the power to transform lives and open up new pathways to success.”

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Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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