General Assembly to address burdensome interstate online education regulations

New legislation in the Virginia General Assembly could make it easier for Mason to provide distance education programs to out-of-state students (photo courtesy of George Mason University).
New legislation in the Virginia General Assembly could make it easier for Mason to provide distance education programs to out-of-state students (photo courtesy of George Mason University).

Incorporating online education into Mason’s academic programs was a key component of the strategic plan that was adopted in December of last year.

“Online education is growing as a complement to classroom-based learning, and at times as an alternative to meet the disparate needs of an increasingly diverse student population,” read the document. “We see online education as an increasingly important method for facilitating degree completion and an effective delivery method for specialized graduate programs designed to meet the needs of many of our students who are simultaneously working and balancing family demands while pursuing a degree. We believe we can become a leader in online learning in Virginia, the nation, and the world.” 

Many universities, including Mason, are turning to distance education as a viable means to offer accessible, low-cost options to students who may not be able to commute to campus or commit to a regularly scheduled class.

In March 2013, Provost Peter Stearns wrote that Mason’s online programs would be “aimed strongly at out-of-state student audiences.”

At Mason, out-of-state enrollment has increased by 47 percent over the past ten years, compared to a 12 percent increase in in-state enrollment. Providing both affordable and accessible education to Mason’s growing out-of-state population has been identified as a key component of the university’s academic future. 

But there’s a problem.

“Virginia institutions offering distance education to students residing in other states—including military students—are currently burdened with the requirement of seeking authorization from those states,” Kirsten Nelson, director of communications at the State Council of Higher Education, wrote in a press release. “Thus, institutions are faced with numerous, costly, and complex bureaucratic processes.” 

If a Virginia university, such as Mason, wanted to provide online programs to an out-of-state student, it would have to abide by the regulations set by the state that the student resides in. As a result, every university works individually with state officials to ensure that their programs are within regulation.

There is currently a bill proposed in the Virginia General Assembly that could help alleviate the regulatory burden. Delegate Jimmie Massie has proposed a bill that would allow the State Council of Higher Education, the governmental body that oversees all public universities in Virginia, to enter into a broad national program to easily provide distance education.

That’s where the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement comes in.

“[SARA] is an agreement among member states, districts and territories that establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education courses and programs,” read the organization’s website. “It is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by postsecondary institutions based in another state.” 

Before, institutions would have to interact with the governments of every state that they wanted to provide an online education. As part of SARA, institutions are signing up to a common set of regulations that allow them to provide online education without going through the regulatory process.

Del. Massie’s bill allows SCHEV to join the agreement.

Though the regulations behind distance education will continue to be discussed over the next few years, this is expected to level the playing field when it comes to providing quality and affordable online programs.

At Mason, administrators hope to build on hybrid programs that incorporate both online and classroom components, as well as online only programs.

“It would be good for Mason to have cohorts of students who were mostly online,” said Goodlett McDaniel, associate provost of distance education. “It would help improve our online programs overall who had students were enrolled in online only.”

According to McDaniel, there are between four and six thousand students at Mason enrolled in at least one online course per semester.

Virginia public universities are not required to opt into SARA, but as Nelsen writes in the press release, they would be advised to participate.

“To ignore this opportunity risks falling behind other states as they join this cooperative effort,” Nelsen wrote. “This will create a disadvantage for Virginia’s institutions and the students they serve.”  

Follow Frank on Twitter or send him an email.

Your rating: None Average: 4 (1 vote)
Student Media Group: