North Carolina Should End Its Protectionist Policies Limiting Online Courses

North Carolina residents have a wide array of choices in seeking a college education. There are more than 50 universities in the state, along with 58 community colleges. Many of these institutions offer online education. But the range of options is not as wide as it should be when prospective students try to enroll in online courses outside of North Carolina. 

That’s because online education in North Carolina (and some other states) is subject to unnecessary protectionism: before they are allowed to offer online courses to North Carolina students, out-of-state universities must submit to a lengthy and expensive authorization process.

The Pope Center’s Jesse Saffron has described the process:

The BOG requires prospective…colleges to provide extensive documentation regarding faculty, course requirements, finances, boards of trustees, health care offerings, and student counseling programs. And if a college claims that a certain degree program leads directly to employment, job placement data must be provided. Institutions pay for such paperwork and data analysis, as well as for site visits or other evaluations conducted by the Board of Governors and a review team.

And it is not just North Carolina that gums up the works with excessive red tape. North Carolina schools that want to offer their online courses to out-of-state students have had to endure similar processes in other states. That means that Fayetteville State University, which is authorized to offer courses in 21 other states, submitted to 21 separate processes. In many cases, schools have decided it’s just not worth the considerable expense in terms of both time and money—thereby limiting options for students seeking online alternatives.

But now there is a better way. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) is an agreement among member states that establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of online education.

Even better, once an online institution is authorized for participation in SARA by one of the member states, it is automatically authorized in all. Indiana became the first SARA state in February 2014. As of November 2, 2015, 33 states have joined the agreement. Eleven of the 33 are in the South. To date, nearly 500 institutions are authorized through SARA to offer online courses throughout all member states.

SARA is overseen by a national council and administered by four regional education compacts. States that wish to join SARA must demonstrate to a regional SARA affiliate that they have an effective process for authorizing institutions. (For North Carolina, the approving affiliate would be the Southern Regional Education Board, of which the state is already a member.) That process must include, at a minimum:

  • Acceptance of national or regional accreditation as evidence of academic quality for approving institutions to participate in reciprocity;
  • Acceptance of an adequate federal financial responsibility score for such participation;
  • An effective state process for consumer protection (including addressing consumer complaints) and ongoing oversight.

States also need to have the authority to enter into the reciprocity agreement. In North Carolina, the UNC Board of Governors has that authority. The existing statute authorizing licensure of out-of-state institutions gives the board appropriate authority to join SARA on behalf of the State of North Carolina, should the Board decide to do so.

This “entrance exam” to join SARA may be difficult, but it’s worth it. Once passed, North Carolina schools seeking to offer online courses nationwide will receive tremendous savings—no longer will Fayetteville State, for example, have to spend time and money chasing individual authorizations.

Perhaps even more important is the greater choice North Carolina residents will have in seeking online courses. That is one of the major reasons for having online education in the first place, to provide greater choices that fit students’ highly individual programs and schedules.

It is hard to come up with any serious reason why North Carolina has not already joined SARA. Doing so should be one of the first things the Board of Governors tackles in the New Year.