Cross-State Cooperation

Most distance education experts agree that the eventual solution to the new requirement that colleges be authorized by every state where they operate is reciprocity — states will agree to accept each others’ authorization, as they do for driver’s licenses and other credentials.

But although some efforts are already under way, finding a reciprocity agreement that appeals to a large majority of states will be a challenge, state officials and representatives of interstate associations said in two panel discussions Thursday at the annual meeting of the Presidents’ Forum.

The state authorization requirement, part of the "program integrity" rules the U.S. Education Department issued in October 2010, requires colleges and universities that offer distance education programs to get approval from every state where they operate, even if "operate" means only "enrolling a student in a particular state." Over the past year, the House of Representatives has tried to overturn the regulation, for-profit colleges have challenged it in court, and a budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 would block its implementation.

Even if such efforts are successful, though, the state laws requiring colleges to get permission to operate will remain in place, and colleges can no longer plead ignorance, panelists said at Thursday’s event.

The Council of State Governments, which has worked on reciprocity compacts in areas ranging from emergency assistance to thoroughbred horse racing, is collaborating with the Presidents’ Forum on a distance education compact and aims to have a first draft by year’s end. “This is not a new concept,” Pam Goins, the council’s director of education policy, said of reciprocity compacts. “The difficulty is to get to a common set of ideas.”

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