As Costs of New Rule Are Felt, Colleges Rethink Online Course Offerings in Other States

Bismarck State College, a two-year institution located in the capital of North Dakota, offers something few colleges do: online degrees in power-plant technology. Utilities across the country send workers to the community college for specialized training in electric power, nuclear power, and other fields.

"We’re pretty darn unique," said Larry C. Skogen, the college’s president. "I don’t think we have any competition out there."

Though other colleges offer similar programs on campus, "we deliver nationwide online," he said, with students in all 50 states.

That could change soon. Under federal rules that take effect today, Bismarck State will have to seek approval to operate in every state where it enrolls students, or forgo those students’ federal aid. With some states charging thousands of dollars per application, the college is weighing whether it can afford to remain in states where the cost of doing business outweighs the benefits, in tuition terms.

Though the college hasn’t made any decisions yet, "the reality is that if we run into a state where we have few students and it’s expensive [to get approval], it’s probably not going to be cost-effective to continue," Mr. Skogen said.

Such cost-benefit calculations are being conducted on campuses across the country, as college leaders struggle to make sense of a patchwork of state rules that were written in an era when "college" was synonymous with "campus" and online learning was in its infancy.

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