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Expand Online Learning Through SARA

Expand availability of online learning by adopting the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA)

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According to statistics cited in the 2013 Final Report of the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, online courses offer a flexible, inexpensive, accessible alternative for 7 million students looking to complete college courses and degree programs. These courses are no longer just alternatives for adult, part-time or working students seeking to earn a certificate, complete an unfinished degree or take advantage of the convenience. They are becoming more of a mainstream option, with greater than 30 percent of college and university students taking at least one online course.

States have traditionally maintained responsibility for authorizing postsecondary institutions to operate within their state lines. The advent and rapid growth of online education has raised new concerns around issues of quality, consumer protection and cost. Further, according to the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, institutions need more efficient and cost-effective means for navigating the often costly, inconsistent and inefficient laws and regulations governing their operations in multiple states.

To address these issues, several national and regional organizations, state higher education agencies, state higher education regulators, accrediting bodies, and other higher education leaders began to explore the possibility of a voluntary, interstate approach, which led to the development of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA). SARA relies on a common set of expectations, standards and procedures to facilitate the expansion of distance education. It provides a more affordable, consistent and transparent process for accredited, degree-granting institutions to obtain authorization to provide education outside their home states.

SittingbytreeSARA is overseen by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) to establish uniform standards and procedures for accepting and monitoring states participating in each of their respective regional reciprocity agreements. It is administered by the four regional higher education compacts—the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE), the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). The four compacts accept applications from member states. Once the compact approves the state for participation, the authorized state agency may begin to enroll eligible institutions. As a result, those institutions are recognized as authorized by the other participating states.

Participating states ensure that they have appropriate oversight and authorization policies and processes around quality, consumer protection and institutional financial responsibility. States are responsible for collecting and sharing information about the institutions they authorize, providing consumer protection and offering a complaint resolution process. Participation for institutions and states is voluntary. An institution in a participating state is not required to participate. However an institution in a state that is not participating cannot participate absent its state’s involvement. Institutions that wish to establish a physical presence in a state other than their own must obtain the approval of that other state, regardless of whether the state or the institution participates in SARA.

Legislative action may be necessary in some states to participate in SARA. Education Counsel and NC-SARA produced a guide for state policymakers that provides an overview of the steps and procedures state leaders can use to implement SARA in their states. Key steps include:

  • Conducting requisite groundwork, including assessing basic eligibility and planning for functional state responsibilities;
  • Applying for participation through the appropriate regional compact;
  • Implementing SARA in the state, including providing institutions with information about SARA and approving institutions for participation in SARA; and
  • Facilitating effective, ongoing SARA maintenance and development, including working collaboratively with all SARA stakeholders and conducting an annual review of participating institutions.

As of October 2015, 29 states had been fully approved for SARA participation; additional states are expected to join in late 2015 and throughout 2016. Within those 29 states, there are nearly 500 participating institutions. Up-to-date information on state actions regarding SARA are maintained by NC-SARA and are available online.

According to the Education Commission of the States, 42 states have taken steps to participate in SARA. Of these 42, 34 have enacted legislation in order to participate in SARA, while 6 states are able to participate in SARA without legislative action.

State Examples

Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.

Alaska

In May 2014, Alaska joined Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Washington to become the first five states approved by WICHE for participation in SARA and one of the first seven approved nationwide. Alaska statute section14.48.050 (2011) allows the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education to enter into interstate reciprocity agreements with similar agencies in other states. Regulations adopted in September 2014 (20AAC17.016) provide additional details and requirements for institutional participation in SARA.

Indiana

In February 2014, the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) approved Indiana as the first state to join SARA. Indiana lawmakers passed legislation in 2013 that paved the way for participation in SARA. The bill called on the Commission for Higher Education to develop procedures for authorizing out-of-state public and nonprofit degree granting institutions to offer instructional or educational services or training in Indiana. Further, the bill allows the Board for Proprietary Education to join interstate reciprocity agreements and to authorize an out-of-state institution to operate in Indiana if the institution and the state in which the institution’s principal campus is located are members of the interstate reciprocity agreement.

Vermont

In June 2014, Vermont lawmakers enacted H.885, the state’s 2015 appropriations bill, which included a section on page 207 that permits the state to participate in an interstate reciprocity agreement for the purposes of authorizing online postsecondary programs. Subsequently, in April 2015, the New England Board of Higher Education approved Vermont’s participation in SARA, making Vermont the second approved state in New England. The Vermont Agency of Education began accepting institutional applications for enrollment in July 2015.

Virginia

Virginia became one of the first southern states approved by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) for participation in SARA. The Virginia General Assembly passed HB 467, and the governor signed it in March 2014. SREB subsequently approved the state’s participation in SARA in October 2014. The Virginia bill authorizes the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to enter into interstate reciprocity agreements authorizing postsecondary distance education. SCHEV will administer the agreements and will approve participation in the agreements by degree-granting institutions of higher education in the state. Participation in the agreements by the institutions is voluntary. The bill also requires SCHEV to establish the Distance Learning Reciprocity Advisory Council, which will include representatives from each participating institution. SCHEV approved policy on reciprocal authorization of distance education and related activities in July 2014. The policy provides greater detail about SCHEV’s plans for implementing the reciprocity agreement, its role and responsibilities, and the processes and policies for participating institutions.

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