This week the WCET State Authorization Network is hosting its second State Authorization Compliance Workshop in Denver. In discussing the contents for this event, we started stumbling on some common myths that we keep hearing about state authorization and distance education. We thought we’d share a few of these with you.

Myth 1: State Authorization was Imposed by the U.S. Department of Education

Well, no. The states have had their regulations for decades. The Department’s interest in assuring that colleges issuing federal financial aid brought greater attention to this regulation, which had been routinely ignored by most public and non-profit institutions.

We see websites that inform students that state authorization is a federal requirement, when that is currently not the case (see Myth 6 below).

Myth 2: States See State Authorization as a Way to Make Money and Fix Their Ailing Budgets.

A picture of a sign the depicts a unicorn and the words "Caution, unicorn playing"
Chasing myths about state authorization.

We hear this again and again. It’s simply not true. Well, not in the vast majority of cases. If you do the math, for all but a few states the fees aren’t enough to pay the staff processing the forms. To think that they are filling budget holes with this money just does not add up.

Myth 3: SARA Will Save Us All. Let’s Wait for SARA.

We love the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, commonly called SARA. It’s growing quickly and will probably envelope all but a few states by the end of next year.  While SARA helps with the entire institution being authorized in other member states, there are still some issues, such as:

  • SARA does not cover programs leading to licensure.
  • If I conduct activities beyond the SARA’s “physical presence standard,” then my institution is subject to the normal regulations of that state.
  • What if my state does not join?
  • What if the state where I have lots of students does not join?

If you are not in compliance in a state, waiting could cost you.

Myth 4: This is All Meaningless Bureaucracy

While some of the steps could be smoother and it would be nice if accreditors, states, and the federal government worked together, the purpose is consumer protection. The states are charged with protecting those receiving services within their own borders. We’ve heard countless stories of institutions of all types doing wrong by students. An individual student is relatively powerless against a large institution. The stories of students giving up rather than fight the institution breaks our hearts.

It is about consumer protection and consumer protection is needed.

Myth 5: If a Student is a Resident of My State, then I Don’t Need to Worry about Authorization for that Student

It’s not about official state of residency, such as where the student pays taxes or has a driver’s license. Since it is about consumer protection law, it is about where the student receives the instruction, participates in an internship, or participates in other activities conducted by the institution.

The student’s official state of residency does not figure into the equation.

Myth 6: The Deadline for Compliance with State Authorization is July 1

This is tied to the belief in the first myth that the Department of Education is setting the compliance date. The original Department of Education deadline was July 1, 2011 and that was slipped a year. Due to a court ruling (which was upheld on appeal), there now is NO Department of Education regulation. But there are still deadlines.  Here’s a list of them (based upon a recent blog post on the 5 Types of State Authorization Regulation:

  • State regulations regarding institutional authorization – The states expect you to be in compliance before you serve the first student or conduct the first regulated activity in their state. The deadline is NOW…or yesterday, if you’ve already begun.
  • State regulations regarding licensure programs – As with the first one, the deadline is NOW.
  • U.S. Department of Education regulation for “on ground” programs – Okay, the deadline actually was July 1, 2015 after several years of delays, but this regulation does not deal with distance education.
  • U.S. Department of Education regulation for “distance education” programs None. There is no law. There is no deadline. NOTE: In recent talks, Under Secretary Ted Mitchell has said that there is still no timeline for re-issuing this regulation. If the Department decides to act on this issue later this year or next year, the earliest any new Department of Education regulation could go into effect is July 1, 2017.
  • U.S. Department of Defense MOU – The deadline is NOW. We’ve not seen official word on this, but hear that the Department of Defense expects colleges offering Tuition Assistance to military members have any necessary approvals in the state where the student/soldier is located.

Good luck!

Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat

Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

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Photo Credit: Kevin Trotman

1 reply on “Six Common Myths about State Authorization for Distance Education”

It’s always good to read Russ’s reality checks on state authorization issues. Sometimes people don’t read the large print: it’s STATE authorization, so don’t get too attached to what the feds have decided to do. Policy decisions made in Iowa, Oklahoma or Virginia are ultimately more important on this issue than what happens in DC.

I’ll add one piece of fine print about SARA. With regard to programs leading to licensure, SARA covers the “generic” requirement of authorization for activity in the state, but it doesn’t cover any requirements by any of the MANY state professional licensing board (e.g. nursing, teaching, social work). Thus the “professional” aspects of these programs are not affected by SARA and institutions still have to meet them.

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