Reciprocity Is Essential for Regulating Distance Education

May 06, 2013

Online education has been growing at a tremendous pace over the last decade or so. Students today have the opportunity to earn college credit and degrees from a wide variety of institutions. Almost seven million students used online technology in 2011 to get access to postsecondary courses, and 32 percent of higher-education students now take at least one course online.

This potential market has not escaped the attention of institutional leadership. Nearly 70 percent of chief academic leaders say that online learning is critical to their long-term strategies for their institutions.

Unfortunately, the rapid growth of distance-education programs has outpaced the ability of states and the federal government to provide a coherent and comprehensive system of regulation. One result is that education providers face a patchwork of individual state regulations with different requirements and varying degrees of complexity and costs. This drains institutional resources and threatens to deprive students of educational opportunities.

But complexity, confusion, and costs of compliance can be reduced if states work together to develop laws and regulations that embody common principles and rules, while also assuring appropriate consumer protection and quality of service. Replacing the chaos of conflicting, constantly changing state laws and regulations with an orderly reciprocity system has been the principal motivation for the work of the Commission on Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, which I have been proud to chair.

Last month the commission, organized by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the State Higher Education Executive Officers, released a report that seeks to bring coherence to the variety of state laws and regulations, while providing quality control for the distance-education community. At the center of the report are recommendations for a system of interstate reciprocity based on the voluntary participation of states and institutions. Participating states would agree on a uniform set of standards for state authorization, and institutions could more easily operate distance-education programs in multiple states, as long as certain criteria were met.

The criteria for participation involve a focus on institutional quality, consumer protection, and institutional financial responsibility. A core principle of the proposed interstate reciprocity framework is that it not create redundancies where well-established structures and requirements that ensure institutional quality already exist. The commission's recommendations, therefore, take advantage of the current work of accreditation agencies, state regulators, and the U.S. Department of Education, rather than creating a new bureaucracy.

Teams from 47 states gathered in Indianapolis recently to discuss the recommendations and steps necessary to put the contemplated agreement into effect. The meeting allowed us to dispel a few common misunderstandings and answer questions that merited additional attention. These included:

  • Does the reciprocity agreement have to get all 50 states and all institutions to participate for it to work?
  • No. The success of the agreement is not dependent upon securing the participation of all states and institutions, but rather on a critical mass of states and institutions agreeing to a uniform set of standards for state authorization that ensures that institutions can easily operate distance-education programs in multiple states. Such an agreement would allow students to enjoy increased access to higher-education opportunities and provide appropriate quality assurance that alleviates the need for states to monitor distance-education activities of institutions authorized outside of the state.

  • Is this just a way to loosen regulations on for-profit institutions that don't deliver quality instruction?
  • No. This is intended to help states focus attention more squarely on the institutions headquartered within their own borders. More likely, this will free up participating states to devote more time and attention to the institutional quality and consumer protection being provided by distance-education programs authorized by their own state.

  • Do states have to approach these issues in exactly the same way?

Yes and no. The whole idea behind reciprocity is that states can handle distance education in a way that makes sense for them, so long as they satisfy the core recommendations of the commission. These recommendations center on important principles and policy parameters that must be adhered to by all if we are to arrive at a truly national solution. That said, there are many facets of this work that can follow local and regional preferences and practices.

I am hopeful that states, institutions, accreditors, and higher-education organizations will embrace the proposed reciprocity framework and create a more workable, logical, and effective system of governance for the growing field of distance education. An agreement adhering to our recommendations will result in increased access for students and provide appropriate quality assurance for all participating states and institutions.

Throughout this process, I have been impressed by the common commitment to those goals, even as we had to work through our individual and organizational differences. I believe that, beyond its immediate impact on higher education, this work is a great example for the rest of the country to consider as we try to solve the vast number of difficult problems that confront us. Taking time to listen to one another and work together can be the key to lasting, effective change.

Richard W. Riley is a former U.S. secretary of education and a former governor of South Carolina.