December 6, 2023

A dozen political advocates and higher education groups are calling on the National Council on State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, the organization that manages the important interstate distance education pact, to build more consumer protections into its policies.

NC-SARA was established in 2013 to ease the regulatory burden on online colleges operating across state lines. The private, nonprofit organization administers an interstate reciprocity agreement that allows online colleges to avoid having to apply for a separate permit for each state where they enroll students.

The organization’s power over online education is enormous—every state except California is a member. California resisted the pact over concerns that the merger would make it impossible to hold out-of-state for-profit colleges accountable.

About 1,100 public colleges participate in state reciprocity agreements, along with about 1,000 private nonprofits and nearly 200 for-profits. As of fall 2021, about 4.2 million students were enrolled in online programs offered by these colleges.

But policy advocates have long complained that NC-SARA sets a low bar for consumer protections, leaving students vulnerable to predatory colleges. Additionally, they argue that the organization’s rules for participation in the compact undermine states’ ability to apply their own consumer protection laws to out-of-state colleges operating within their borders.

NC-SARA recently adopted new procedures for making policy changes to make the process more transparent. The organization called on stakeholders to propose policy changes by early February.

They will have the opportunity to present their proposals at public forums later in the year, and NC-SARA board members are scheduled to vote on policy recommendations in October.

A group of influential organizations and policy advocates, including The Century Foundation, Center for American Progress and The Institute for College Access & Success, she made a lot of suggestions in January to increase consumer protection. These include allowing states to enforce their own laws against colleges that participate in the compact, applying stricter standards to for-profit colleges, and increasing state representation on the NC-SARA board.

Melanie Booth, NC-SARA’s vice president of educational programs and engagement, said the organization will not comment on any of the proposals until they have been reviewed by the organization’s regional steering committees.

The proposals come at a time of increased scrutiny of online programs, particularly those offered by for-profit colleges. But criticism has also mounted against for-profit colleges, many of which contract with for-profit companies to help build their online offerings.

While the ideas of policy advocates have been raised before, those involved in the new NC-SARA proposals hope the organization’s recent moves — including efforts to be more transparent — will make board members more receptive to change.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Carolyn Fast, chief executive of The Century Foundation. “This seems like a potentially good time to consider and possibly enact changes because this is the first time the NC-SARA board has started this kind of process where they’re really working on public involvement, transparency and diverse perspectives.”

A “two-tier” system for students

In order to participate in the interstate agreement, colleges must meet NC-SARA standards. However, in their policy proposal, the groups argued that these standards “are minimal and offer inadequate protections for online students.”

Some states have stronger consumer protections for college students than required under the interstate agreement. However, the agreement prohibits members from enforcing these laws at out-of-state colleges that enroll online students located within their state borders.

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