As Online Education Grows, National Providers Struggle With State Regulations

In the 1980s, higher-education leaders convened to study the emerging issue of regulating distance-learning programs that cross state borders. As technology became more accepted, they predicted, the inevitable result would be a more coordinated, national approach to regulation.

Not quite. Distance-learning technology has changed, with the Internet supplanting television, but the regulatory maze is getting worse, according to a recent report from a group of online providers calling for reform.

That was the backdrop as distance educators, state regulators, and accreditors assembled here Tuesday in a fresh attempt to reconcile the desires of a booming cross-border online-education industry with the need to protect consumers from shady online operators and resolve their complaints.

Both Tuesday’s meeting and the new report underscored how this subject can inspire brass-knuckled educational politics, accusations of selective enforcement, and discomfort with for-profit education.

The problem, in the eyes of those who want reform, is a decentralized higher-education system that empowers each state to establish its own rules. Distance institutions must often get approval to do business in each jurisdiction. That means untangling a “complex and redundant web of processes, regulations, and standards,” says the report, called “Aligning State Approval and Regional Accreditation for Online Postsecondary Institutions.” It costs lots of money, takes lots of time, and ultimately restricts access to education, the report argues.

“We’ve got a structure here that was created for the 19th and 20th century,” says John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, a distance-learning institution based in New York. “It is not appropriate for the 21st century.”

The situation is made worse because some states “create defensive barriers to protect in-state institutions from external competition,” says the new report, published by the Presidents’ Forum, a collaboration of national, adult-serving institutions that embrace online education. Local colleges or professional associations occasionally prod institutions to build protectionist walls. "Some may discriminate specifically against online learning," the report says.

The picture looks different from the perspective of Alan Contreras, a bearded, bespectacled, bowtie-wearing Oregon official who jokingly introduced himself on Tuesday as “that very wicked creature, a state regulator.”

The big issue is who deals with problems like student complaints, administrative misbehavior, and unqualified faculty, he says. State licensing agencies set up their "vast list of rules" to "prevent problems and resolve those that occur," he says, "because no one else can or will."

“They are arguing that if you are an accredited institution, that is good enough to let you operate anywhere in the U.S. — that’s really the bottom line,” he says of those calling for reform. “The problem with that is that accrediting bodies don’t really have any problem-solving or enforcement capacity when issues come up.”

An “inconvenient truth,” Mr. Contreras adds, is that, at least in his office, most issues that come up involve for-profit colleges.

The report suggests several strategies to resolve the problem: an agreed-upon body of required student and institutional data, a template of state standards, and avoiding redundancy by accepting the judgments of other states.

So will change happen this time? Michael B. Goldstein, a higher-education lawyer here, points out that circumstances are different now.

“One fundamental change is you’ve got big, mainstream institutions that are now getting very substantially into this area,” he says. “And the other is you’ve got high-demand areas like teaching and nursing, which really need these kinds of extended programs offered by high-quality institutions. Put those together, and I think there will be some fundamental change.”


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