Former Education Secretary Seeks to Simplify States' Distance-Education Rules

April 11, 2013

A group of higher-education leaders, accreditors, and regulators led by a former U.S. education secretary is seeking to streamline distance-education and state-authorization regulations to make it easier and more affordable for colleges to enroll students across the country.

The group, the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, released a report on Thursday that proposes a plan for interstate reciprocity, based on the voluntary participation of states and colleges.

The commission said such a framework would help reduce the high costs and inefficiencies often associated with applying for authorization, and would do so by establishing nationwide performance guidelines agreed to by participating states.

Colleges have been required for many years to receive authorization from the states in which they enroll students before they can receive federal student-aid funds.

Though many colleges assumed the requirement did not apply to online programs, a federal rule, adopted in July 2011, sought to explicitly extend the rule to online and distance-education programs. The rule was overturned shortly thereafter, but many states still adopted new regulations for institutions operating distance-education programs within their borders.

A problem for many colleges is the high fees to apply for authorization in each state, which could cost an institution tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the number of states in which it seeks to operate. In some cases, colleges have simply turned away students in certain states in order to avoid the authorization costs.

'A Real Difference'

But Richard W. Riley, who served as secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, said his commission's plan would significantly reduce the costs associated with applying for state authorization. Under the proposed framework, all participating colleges would face one fee structure, including one annual fee that would be "much less" than the current fees, according to the report.

Under the plan, the four regional higher-education compacts that already exist—the Midwestern Higher Education Company, the New England Board of Higher Education, the Southern Regional Education Board, and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education—would oversee the reciprocity agreements.

To participate in the reciprocity system, the home state of a college would oversee and regulate the institution's work in other states to ensure that it met a set of national baseline standards. Other states in which the college operates could not regulate that institution unless it had a "physical presence" in the state, which the report defines as a continuing occupation of a physical location for instruction or the maintenance of an administrative office to facilitate instruction.

Additionally, the report says, responsibility for dealing with student complaints would shift to the home state of a college, rather than the state in which the student receives instruction, a step that would bolster consumer protection for students.

"This proposal will make a real difference in the ability of higher-education institutions to effectively deliver distance-education courses across the country," Mr. Riley said in a written statement.

Representatives from 47 states will meet with members of the commission in Indianapolis next week to discuss the recommendations. The commission plans to start accepting states into the reciprocity system as early as this fall. Once a state has been approved by its regional compact, colleges in that state may begin applying to participate.