Essential Requirements and Critical Roles

In today’s ever-evolving landscape of higher education, Distance Education/State Authorization Compliance[1] plays a crucial role in ensuring institutions follow laws, regulations, and guidelines. This process:

  • is critical for institutions to ensure that they are operating within the legal requirements of each state, and,
  • provides protections for both students and the institution itself by helping to facilitate the quality of education.

Distance Education/State Authorization compliance can be a complex and time-consuming process, as each state has its own set of regulations and requirements for out-of-state institutions. These requirements may include obtaining approval from the state’s higher education agency, registering with the state’s attorney general’s office, or submitting to regular audits and reporting.

As such, compliance positions and roles are critical for colleges and universities that offer distance education programs, as failure to comply with these requirements can result in serious consequences for institutions, including fines, loss of accreditation, and/or sanctions. Even more, non-compliance can also impact students, potentially leading to issues with financial aid eligibility or transferability of credits.

To ensure state authorization compliance, institutions must stay informed of the latest regulations and requirements in each state in which they operate. The professionals who complete this work often must work closely with legal counsel, regulatory affairs professionals, academic officers, faculty, and staff.

In recent months, the State Authorization Network’s (SAN) Special Interest Team (SIT) completed the study, 2023 Profile of a State Authorization Professional: An Analysis of a Growing Field in Higher Education. The study examined various work-specific/occupational variables of professionals in the field. The variables reviewed included job titles, degree attainment, salary, and job responsibilities.

While 276 compliance professionals participated in the study, two major themes emerged from their responses. The information gleaned from the study’s findings will help to inform future research and may be beneficial for higher education administrators when identifying professionals working in these areas who may need additional support, and when reimagining new compliance tools, or even pinpointing areas for improvement.

Key Research Themes

Theme 1: Salary Variations, Differing Job Titles, & Contrasting Job Duties

Distance Education Compliance Professionals play a vital role in ensuring that higher education institutions adhere to laws and regulations. As such, their expertise and skill set should be highly valued by institutions looking to avoid costly legal battles and maintain a good reputation. One would expect that individuals serving (successfully) in these roles would be compensated and respected accordingly. However, research indicates that the salaries for these professionals vary greatly and often correlate to one’s location, experience, title/position, educational attainment, and other factors.

One of the main factors that can influence a compliance professional’s salary is their title/position within the organization. For example, survey results reveal that the average salary for these compliance professionals in the United States is between $60,000 to $65,000 annually. However, this figure can range from as low as $25,000 for entry-level positions/titles such as “Coordinator” or “Assistant” to over $100,000 for those with senior-level roles/titles such as ‘Director, Assistant/Associate Vice Provost”. Interestingly, some of the lower salaries can be attributed to the 7% of these professionals who are employed only on a part-time basis.

An additional indicator of salary was educational attainment. Approximately 24% of research participants earned over $100,000 per year. However, many of those earners held advanced degrees (master’s or terminal degrees). Those with advanced degrees, such as a Master’s, Doctoral degree (EdD or PhD), Juris Doctor (JD) degree, etc., tend to command higher salaries than those with high school credentials, or even an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree.

Regional Differences

textbox Further, as can be imagined, the region in which a person is employed impacts their salary. In the case of the 2023 survey, the majority of the data (54.3%) comes from a single region (the Southern Regional Education Board), while only 4.1% of the responses came from the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) region. Although the survey was distributed nationally, the responses are not representative of all regions. Obtaining a more equal distribution of responses would allow salary data that is more reflective of the national landscape of State Authorization Professionals.

Further, as can be imagined, the region in which a person is employed impacts their salary. In the case of the 2023 survey, the majority of the data (54.3%) comes from a single region (the Southern Regional Education Board), while only 4.1% of the responses came from the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) region. Although the survey was distributed nationally, the responses are not representative of all regions. Obtaining a more equal distribution of responses would allow salary data that is more reflective of the national landscape of State Authorization Professionals.

Job Duties

Higher education institutions often face financial constraints that make recruiting full-time staff and offering competitive salaries difficult. The financial challenges facing colleges and universities are immense. This situation can result in high workloads for existing staff.

As such, many compliance professionals report that they perform a myriad of duties.

Thus, the range and duties/tasks a person performs can impact salary. Accordingly, the survey results reveal that the overwhelming majority of respondents (92.5%) have additional responsibilities outside of state authorization and general compliance. As seen in the 2017 original survey, many of the respondents who earned over $100,000 were senior-level administrators who spent less than 10% of their time on state authorization or general compliance.

Theme 2: Policy and the Regulatory Landscape   

Approximately five years passed between the time of the original state authorization professional survey and the second. In that time, state authorization and distance education compliance requirements and responsibilities burgeoned and gained more focus at the national level. Also, during that time, the number of states and institutions participating in reciprocity through SARA (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements) increased and we’ve seen a flurry of regulatory activity from the U.S. Department of Education. These regulations have added and modified institutional responsibilities relating to state authorization, distance education, professional licensure compliance, and tying compliance to eligibility for federal financial aid.

Additionally, institutions have become more aware of compliance obligations to the states when conducting out-of-state activities. And, importantly, as we globally persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw institutions of all kinds forced to quickly shift to emergency remote learning. Although data suggests that enrollment in distance education courses is not currently as high as it was during the pandemic, it does suggest that enrollment in distance education courses is higher now than pre-pandemic. Each of these factors, and many more, influence the responsibilities of State Authorization Compliance professionals at an institution.

As noted earlier, in the 2023 survey, most respondents (92.5%), indicated that they have additional responsibilities outside of state authorization and general compliance, compared to 80% from the 2017 survey. The additional responsibilities range from instructional design and faculty development to accreditation and student success. For a list of the additional responsibilities submitted by survey respondents, please refer to the expansive information in Appendix I of the report.

Between both surveys, the amount of time spent on state authorization work appears to remain consistent. In 2017, 56% of respondents spent 25% or less of their time on state authorization, while another 15% spent all their time on state authorization. In 2023, approximately 58% of respondents spent 20% or less of their time on state authorization, while only 4% spent all their time on state authorization. The increase in participation in reciprocity could account for the small decreases we see here.

However, a notable change came in terms of the time spent on professional licensure compliance. In 2017, 67% of respondents did not work on professional licensure at all. In 2023, the number of individuals not working on professional licensure at all had dropped to 13.7%, and 69% of respondents spent between 1-39% of their time on professional licensure, with 2.5% even spending all their time on professional licensure.

The major shifts we see in responsibility, especially the increase of professional licensure compliance duties added to the state authorization professional, show how this role is growing and adapting to the regulatory requirements relating to distance education and out-of-state activities. To participate in SARA, institutions have professional licensure compliance responsibilities. The U.S. Department of Education also has professional licensure compliance requirements tied to federal financial aid. It is important to note that the 2023 survey was completed before the final rules relating to certification procedures enhanced institutional obligations relating to professional licensure programs. If this survey is repeated in the coming years, we recommend an analysis of the impact of those regulations on the State Authorization Professional.

In future surveys and research opportunities, we believe it would be highly important to track the changes in a similar manner to those discussed above. Doing so, over time would allow us to better understand how these policy changes influence the responsibilities, salaries, and work environments of State Authorization and Distance Education Professionals.  

Leveraging the Survey Information: Addressing Staffing Needs

As many of the survey respondents noted that they often feel overwhelmed and understaffed due to the myriads of tasks required, and to the fact they operate as a “team of one”, we encourage all to utilize the survey information to benefit your role at the institution. Though the survey has limitations, we encourage institutions and state authorization professionals to analyze the data to assist in making informed decisions regarding staffing requirements, and to the scope and duties of the state authorization professional.

Group of professionals shaking hands

We also believe that this data can be used to better educate and inform administrators and/or senior-level leaders on the importance of the role. Moreover, some professionals have noted that they may utilize the survey data to justify the hiring of new staff. Therefore, utilizing the survey data to justify the hiring of new staff is a strategic approach that can provide valuable insights into the operational needs of an institution.

Because the survey results not only contain important details regarding the typical tasks required of these positions (such as: researching, analyzing regulations, completing complex state applications, data reporting, etc.), the data also provides insight into the timing and commitment required to complete said projects. Thus, the survey can really be of value to institutions and staff when establishing the scope of responsibilities typically handled by state authorization professionals so that job roles can be clearly defined and allocated more efficiently. This may include planning to ensure the institution has the necessary resources in place to support compliance, whether that be personnel or technological resources.

Expanding the Research 

The purpose of this study, like any research project, is to advance, challenge, and extend the existing knowledge in this field. However, our primary hope is that the experiences and insights shared by these professionals promote confidence and impart wisdom for newcomers to the field when considering regulatory, ethical, and operational opportunities. We also hope that this research will spark conversations among campus leaders about the importance of the work and the critical need for increasing budgets to expand compliance teams.

Even more, the research can be expanded to cover a number of additional topics. Because the field of state authorization and distance education compliance has grown rapidly over the past decade, institutions and their respective staff are still learning how to best develop these roles and empower these professionals to be successful.

That stated, as the field continues to grow, so does the opportunity to learn, grow, and gain experience about the trends in the role and how we might advance the research of the profession. Some possible avenues for the future that could expand on the research in meaningful ways include:

  • Region-specific challenges: Identify whether state authorization professionals face challenges specific to the region in which the institution is located (geographic region, urban/rural, etc.).
  • Role-specific challenges: Identify whether state authorization professionals face challenges specific to different types of institutions (public/nonprofit, large/small, etc.).
  • Impact of regulatory changes: Analyze the impact that regulatory or policy changes have had on the allocation of duties and resources at the institution.
  • Impact of technology: Investigate whether new tools or technologies are impacting the effectiveness of the role of the state authorization professional.
  • Work-life balance and job satisfaction: Investigate factors influencing work-life balance and job satisfaction among state authorization professionals.
  • Dive more deeply into team and/or departmental structure: Gain a better understanding of the impact of centralized vs. decentralized structures.
  • Risk Management: Understand the importance of risk assessments and management, note benchmarking strategies to mitigate risk, and utilize data analytics.
  • Career Development: Identify strategies to promote growth in the field, pinpointing areas that require additional training, development, and networking.

Concluding Thoughts

Maintaining compliance with distance education activities is vital for today’s colleges and universities. Failure to comply could lead to stiff fines, penalties, accreditation issues, and even the loss of Title IV eligibility. The individuals who bear the responsibility of ensuring compliance with the distance education-related regulatory standards/guidelines are critical to safeguarding the success and reputation of an institution.

Professional woman working at a computer

These compliance professionals often have a myriad of responsibilities and are also required to collaborate with numerous stakeholders. Their peers run the gamut of the General Council and Legal Departments, Financial Aid officials, Offices of Assessment and Accreditation, Provosts, Deans, and many more. Moreover, these professionals are responsible for interpreting and implementing federal, state, and local regulations that affect higher education institutions. Many of the individuals work closely with faculty, staff, and administrators to develop policies and procedures that ensure compliance with laws such as the Clery Act, Title IX, FERPA, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Not only must these professionals stay abreast of changing regulations, but also with industry standards/best practices from the field, so they can effectively manage compliance efforts. In addition to managing regulatory compliance, these professionals also contribute to the overall success of institutions by promoting a culture of ethics and accountability. They also provide training and resources to campus community members on compliance issues, and they investigate complaints and violations to ensure prompt resolution. Their expertise and dedication to compliance not only protects institutions from legal and financial risks, but also helps to foster equitable, safe, and inclusive environments for students, faculty, and staff.

By understanding the importance of these roles and how to fulfill them effectively, leaders in the academy can better serve their institutions. This research goes a long way to close the gap on the dearth of information that has long since permeated this field. The report also makes an important case for identifying the vast duties required for campuses to remain compliant with state and federal requirements.


Jana Walser-Smith

Director, Interstate Compliance and SAN Member Outreach, State Authorization Network


jwalsersmith@wiche.edu

Kathryn Kerensky

Director, Digital Learning Policy & Compliance, State Authorization Network


kkerensky@wiche.edu

[1] Distance Education/State Authorization Compliance refers to the process by which institutions of higher education ensure that they are meeting the regulatory requirements in each state where they operate.

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