Higher Education Policy and Practice

Do not Cross State Lines – Is the New Online Regulatory Environment Preventing Opportunity and Access?

The higher education press is filled with coverage of the “new” online regulatory environment.  Focused on ensuring the quality of online programs and “protecting” the student consumer, states have put forth an array of requirements.  But, is this the best
path to achieve those “protections” and are there unintended results?

Institutions with online and blended programs, which include most of us, are working to inquire and comply.  State regulatory agencies, many reeling from severe budget and staffing cuts, are working to clarify and respond.  Backlogs and lengthy processing times at the state level, plus institutional costs in staff and fees, are significant.  Despite the hopes of many that this too will pass, states are not pulling back.  Institutions currently “sitting on the sidelines” should activate compliance processes on their campuses and connect with those states from which they draw their students and faculty—as such activities may trigger a “presence” in the state.

As many institutions work to comply, policy leaders in higher education are beginning to question whether the morass of state regulations is moving American higher education backward.  Are we limiting opportunity and access?  While states have had the legal ability to regulate online activities that involve students residing in their state, few had sought to do so apart from regional accreditation and general institutional review or defined “physical presence” in such a way that required a state review, until now.  Given this history and practice, institutions, agencies, students and faculty have worked to enjoy
the richness of higher education across the United States.  Faculty and institutions have collaborated across state borders, with such collaboration highlighted and praised.   Students have benefitted from new course offerings via these collaborations and associations and they have enjoyed returning to their “home state” on breaks and vacations, enrolling in online courses with the blessing of their institution.

Now I am dating myself here, but I view being barred from higher education in another state with the same angst I once had on the basketball court when in women’s basketball players could not cross mid-court.  The play continued, but you could not.  I am pleased to say that eventually the rules did change and women were able to play with a full court opportunity.  Similarly, as an undergraduate, my parents drove across three states to take me to college.  We were not stopped in any of the states, nor did I think the institution I was attending, in my “new“ state, was of any less quality than those in my home state.  I selected the institution because it had a combination of unique qualities I desired:  programs, size, faculty, activities, and location.  Today, would I be able to do the same if the program was offered online…and my home state had not sought “permission”?

Deep in the throes of processing institutional applications and requests for clarity, and collecting their fees, state regulatory offices do not seem anxious or in a position to address larger policy issues—the unintended consequences of this new online regulatory
environment.  But national, regional and state higher education policy leaders are beginning to do so through organizations such as the President’s Forum at Excelsior College, SHEEO and SREB.  This effort is just beginning.  Working to find common language, guidelines and procedures from state to state will take both time and determination.  As Stevens Strategy works with institutions on compliance, we will join this effort and assist institutions as they communicate these “unintended consequences” to their state higher education policy leaders.  With greater demands for higher education and a skilled workforce needed in this economy, is it not the time to have the advantages of playing on the full court?

Sue Lane, PhD

Senior Consultant, Stevens Strategy

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