Recommended Reading: ED Clarifies Its Intent on State Authorization Reciprocity

Last year Russ Poulin from WCET and I wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed (also published at e-Literate) describing and countering attempts by the Century Foundation and other activists who were arguing against the State A

A coalition of consumer groups, legal aid organizations and unions object to the state of New York joining an agreement that would change how colleges offering distance education courses in the state would be regulated. As coalition members asserted in an Inside Higher Ed article, the state would be ceding its authority to other states. Students would be left with no protection from predatory colleges and it would make it easier for “bad actors to take advantage of students and harder for states to crack down on them.”

That all sounds ominous. It would be, if it were true.

The story has taking a series of dramatic turns. First, New York state did join SARA. But in a surprise move in the final regulatory language from the Department of Education (ED), they included language proposed by the Massachusetts AG and supported by the Century Foundation that appeared to undermine the concept of reciprocity. Most analysts and insiders, including WCET and SARA themselves came to the same conclusion that Massachusetts’ AG did – SARA and the concept of reciprocity agreements would not survive as long as the regulation survived. In a surprise move, however, anonymous staffers at ED called Russ Poulin (the person to follow on this subject), letting him know that their intent is not at all to undermine SARA.

This may seem like an arcane policy issue, but it has enormous consequences for any online program that enrolls students residing in different states than the home of the institution. 47 states and 1,300 institutions have voluntarily joined SARA as the best way to follow federal and state regulations.

Russ Poulin has posted on the WCET blog the results of his phone call, and it is well worth reading.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: “The report of SARA’s death was an exaggeration.”

Department of Education officials recently told me that they recognize the hard work over many years in creating interstate reciprocity agreements for state authorization. They also expressed surprise over the perceptions that their new state authorization regulations would harm reciprocity.

In a call initiated by the Department and a subsequent call to answer some follow-up questions, well-placed Department officials clarified widespread “misconceptions” advanced by me and many others. This blog post presents my interpretation of what was said in those calls. Due to these discussions, my view of the intent of the Department’s new reciprocity definition has changed.

This is welcome news.

Russ goes on to describe a somewhat bizarre call.

Again, this blog post presents my interpretation of what Education Department leadership intended all along, but was hard to determine from the final regulation. A Department official suggested that we submit a request to the Department to officially clarify (perhaps through a “Dear Colleague” letter) the intent of the reciprocity agreement definition. WCET, the State Authorization Network, and SARA will, together, promptly draft an official request for clarification.

Meanwhile, this places me in an awkward position. The Department staff reached out to me to clarify their intent. They are completely aware that I will share my impressions publicly, but they asked that those participating in the calls not be named. You can draw your own conclusions, but I think it has much to do with the calendar.

Like Russ, I find this to be welcome news. But I wouldn’t pop the champagne corks yet, as ED needs to actually clarify their intent in a legally binding manner such as a Dear Colleague letter. Until then, this virtual parking garage meeting is just another entertaining twist for those following higher ed policy in the US.

In the meantime, go read Russ’s post to find full description of the issue and the clarified intent of ED in the matter.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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