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.
That, in turn, created a “two-tiered” system, the groups wrote, where students who attend a college in person or attend an online institution based in their state may be afforded more consumer protections than others.
“It’s not something that’s transparent to students,” Fast said. “When a student enrolls in a program, they don’t necessarily know they’re going to have less consumer protections than other students who are in their state because of this agreement.”
The common perception is that the state reciprocity agreement is meant to make it easier to access online education by waiving state laws, Fast said.
But she argued there are more nuanced ways to allow online colleges to cross state lines that don’t undermine student protections.
“You could waive those laws that have to do with getting the initial authorization, like the application fee. You could eliminate the need to apply to multiple states,” Fast said. “You don’t have to have people give up all consumer protections.”
Handover states more power
The groups pointed to another big problem they see with NC-SARA: States don’t have full control over setting the interstate compact’s standards. That’s because the organization’s governing board — which includes representatives from institutions and accreditors — has veto power over proposed changes to the agreement.
“States do not hold a majority of board positions and therefore lack control over the board,” the proposal states.
The groups say each board member should be either a representative of member states or regional agreements, which are groups that help states work together on their higher education goals.
Barmak Nassirian, vice president of higher education policy at the advocacy group Veterans Education Success, agrees that the board’s composition is taking compact oversight power away from states and delegating it to others.
“Not just for anyone off the street,” he added. “It was delegated to the very entities that the function is supposed to oversee.”
Even if NC-SARA board members ultimately veto the proposals, higher education advocates say they will have additional opportunities to improve consumer protections for students.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education said it planned to do so round of negotiated rulemaking, in which various higher education groups and stakeholders come together to create new regulations. One of the topics for discussion will be state authorization.
“It’s going to be the next place where these issues are moving,” said Kyle Southern, associate vice president for higher education quality at TICAS. “If we can’t push for stronger student protections either through the SARA board or at the state level, hopefully a more robust set of federal regulations can effectively strengthen those student protections.”