Earlier this year, the Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) announced the creation of the Commission on Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education.  According to the Commission’s mission statement, it will:

“develop and provide recommendations on appropriate government oversight and consumer protection for distance education. The Commission’s primary aim is to address the costs and inefficiencies faced by postsecondary institutions that must comply with multiple (often inconsistent) state laws and regulations because they provide educational opportunities to students in multiple state jurisdictions.”

Even though the phrase “state authorization” does not appear in the mission statement document or press release, it is obvious that this is a main target of the Commission.

The members of the Commissionrepresent a wide range of interests and background.  I asked three of our colleagues who are members of the Commission to give us some insight as to what happened at their first meeting, which was held on June 12, 2012 in Washington, DC.

A person clasping their head while reading regulations
Dealing with regulatory headaches.

Paul Shiffman is the Assistant Vice President for Strategic and Government Relations for Excelsior College. He also leads the Presidents’ Forum’s efforts to create the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement.  Paul gives us highlights of what happened in the meeting:

In the overview for the meeting, Commission Chair Richard Riley emphasized that his application of the mission of the Commission would be to bring all of the higher education sectors together to consider key issues related to government oversight (federal), consumer protection, and academic quality as related to distance education.  He reflected that by design, the Commission membership has membership from all sectors.  Chair Riley acknowledged the work of the Presidents’ Forum in advancing consideration of multi-state reciprocity for institutional authorization, and indicated that this initiative presented a base to build upon for seeking a politically practical approach to addressing the inefficiencies in the systems for oversight of higher education. “Figure out the bread and butter issues, develop a consensus on issues/inefficiencies that should be addressed, and build a political base to get it done.”

Co-Chairs Peter McPherson (APLU) and Paul Lingenfelter (SHEEO) reflected that dealing with the inefficiencies is not an easy issue and that the work of the Presidents’ Forum though important, would have to ultimately appeal to a broad spectrum to gain a politically acceptable agreement (McPherson). Paul Lingenfelter (SHEEO) indicated that most concerns at the state and federal level are connected to the larger issue of quality assurance.  He recommended that the Commission think through the core functions of higher education (institutions ad sectors) and revisit and strengthen the Triad (emphasis on the role of accreditation). 

Initially, the Chair and co-chairs with commissioners that the overarching vision of the Commission would be guided by the principles that: 1. considerations should be student centered (“where students are not well served?”) 2. a good outcome would be to have states play a smaller role confined to consumer protection and less involvement in quality outcome issues (role for accreditors, institutions, and marginally, U.S. ED.).

At this initial meeting, the commissioners (listed by facilitator) listed 15 “top concerns”:

  1. The work of the Commission should have pragmatic consequences.
  2. Should center on and be about serving students.
  3. Attuned to best practice while taking on bad practice.
  4. Can’t address burdens of cost without addressing quality of outcomes (a quagmire).
  5. Consider standards for distance education, but not divorced from all accreditation standards.
  6. Consider the cost (staff and institutional) of inefficient structures/processes.
  7. Broaden student access to, choice of, and affordability of higher learning.
  8. Preserve and strengthen opportunities for innovation – focus on outcomes based framework.
  9. Consider the impact on institutions that are not part of the current regulatory context.
  10. An agreement for a regulatory structure (reciprocity) must be national in its scope and application.
  11. Clear expectations (regulations) and transparency in oversight and outcomes.
  12. Alignment of the roles and responsibilities of the states, federal government and accreditors (mapping).
  13. Maintaining a completion agenda focus – coherence??????
  14. Provide a level playing field for all sectors
  15. Question the value added by our governance/regulatory behaviors.

It was reflected that preserving innovation is more important than regulatory compliance. As a relatively self-regulated industry, how do we hold ourselves accountable?

After much exploration of issues of coherence of regulation, systemic inefficiencies in the oversight of distance learning (online), and the roles of the members of the Triad, the conversation focused upon the variability of state statute and regulatory processes in institutional authorization and the barriers created to access, student choice, cost containment, and degree attainment.  The Commission appears poised to solicit further input about these issues and to focus further attention to this area of concern.

Pamela Quinn, Provost, LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications of the Dallas County Community College District, shared the following observation:

The new Commission seems well balanced in terms of the perspectives and stakeholders represented.  From an institutional perspective, the intent of this commission seems to be on track with looking at maintaining quality outcomes, innovation, and access and choice. It is clear, however, that this will be very complex and challenging in dealing with the all the states, the regional accrediting agencies, and federal regulators.

About the next steps and outcomes for the Commission, Marshall Hill, Executive Director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, shared these thoughts:

There will be a second face-to-face meeting in September, a “remote” meeting (conference calls, I suppose) meeting in November, and an undetermined format final meeting in January. 

I expect a set of recommendations and then an effort to get behind those recommendations and prompt change. Peter McPherson and others said several times that there’s little interest in just examining the issues and writing papers.

We’ll keep you informed on next steps for the Commission and opportunities to provide input.  Meanwhile, we’ll continue pushing forward on finalizing the reciprocity agreement by this fall.

Many thanks to Paul, Pam, and Marshall for serving on the Commission and for sharing their insights.


Russ Poulin
Deputy Director, Research & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

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