Higher Ed Increasingly Seeks Authorization for Online Classes

A survey shows that colleges and universities are making progress on obtaining the required authorization from states to offer online classes.

by / March 22, 2013 0

When it comes to online classes, state laws require that higher education institutions be authorized to offer classes on the Web — and though colleges and universities are making progress in complying, they still have a ways to go, according to a March 2013 survey.

Two years ago, 67 percent of higher education institutions didn't apply for authorization — a process designed to protect consumers who want to take online classes at public or private institutions. This year, that number dropped to 32 percent in the survey, What are Institutions Doing (or Not Doing) About State Authorization — Revisited, conducted by the WCET-WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, the Sloan Consortium Inc. and the University Professional & Continuing Education Association.

Every state sets different authorization requirements and fees, which makes it a logistical hassle for colleges and universities to handle, said Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for the WCET-WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. About 16 percent of an institution's enrollments come from outside its home state, and 27 percent of the 205 survey respondents* said they plan to seek authorization in every state or territory.

"Institutions are begining to take state authorization seriously, and that's what we're seeing from the results," Poulin said. "Although they've been a little slow to move into it, we're seeing that institutions are beginning to do the work and are getting the authorizations to do that, but it is slowed by the fact that it's a process that is so different from state to state."

More of them don't apply for three major reasons, Poulin said.

  1. Higher education institutions won't follow authorization laws outside their state because they don't believe other states have jurisdiction over them. Until they're forced to comply, they won't do anything. Eleven percent of respondents hold this view.
  2. Another group that includes community colleges doesn't have the staff, money or the number of students in other states to justify making authorization a priority.
  3. A third group doesn't understand how to handle 50 state laws, so they don't even try.
    "I think they get confused, but the only way to overcome confusion is by educating yourself and actually doing the work." Poulin said. "And so I think that's another reason as well is that they just hit this confusion barrier and just don't want to go beyond it." 

In certain states, more than one-third of the higher education institutions will not go through authorization because of high fees and complex processes, Poulin said. Five states in particular cause colleges to stay away for these reasons, including Minnesota, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Maryland and Alabama.

And when these colleges reject states, they're also rejecting students. Nearly half of the institutions who chose not to go through authorization in states like these have turned away 26 students, while 13 percent chose not to serve more than 100 students.

"When you can get to 40 some states without a whole lot of trouble or easier processes and such, and if you're serving just a few students in some of those [other] states, the return on investment just doesn't make sense," Poulin said. "They're making actually what are good business decisions, but they're unfortunate decisions for those students."

To help address these issues, many higher education institutions are looking to a State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which is set to be finalized soon. Funded by the Lumina Foundation and led by the President's Forum and the Council of State Governments, the agreement would identify criteria that states would use to evaluate institutions that offer online classes.

Through this agreement, institutions would only need to be authorized by their home state. Other states that accept the agreement would allow the institutions to work in their territory. And they would also be held accountable in their home state.

"The reciprocity seems like the best way that it simplifies things by quite a bit in terms of creating trust among the states, in terms of the institution going through review just once and then all the complaints going back to a central place so that somebody actually acts on them," Poulin said.

*The 205 responses represent a response rate of 31%. The error margin for the study is plus or
minus 5.7% at 95% confidence.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.