Disparate state rules plague online education

Regulatory policies have not evolved to accommodate online learning, officials say.
Regulatory policies have not evolved to accommodate online learning, officials say.

A patchwork of state rules for accrediting colleges and universities — some more lax than others — remain a roadblock for a national standard that online school officials have lobbied for since the early 1980s.

Administrators from web-based colleges came to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13 for an annual gathering that focused on how the growing online-education field can navigate–and someday simplify–the complex process of securing accreditation in states nationwide.

Although some states abide by standards that prove “intrusive” and burdensome to schools seeking accreditation, other states “have little or no regulatory schema, and institutions can operate in an unfettered way,” according to a task force report issued by the Presidents’ Forum, which has met since 2004 to discuss challenges for decision makers at online postsecondary schools.

Officials from schools nationwide said the group should lobby for a national standard, with some speakers suggesting that if an online university is accredited in one state, that accreditation should be recognized in other states. But regulatory officials said schools accredited in states with slack educational standards would not be accepted in states with more stringent requirements.

Alan Contreras, an administrator in Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization, said states such as Hawaii–which has been plagued with so-called “diploma mills” in recent years–would complicate college officials’ plans for state-to-state acceptance of accreditation.

“Nobody in their right mind would take a Hawaii license for anything,” Contreras said, adding that most violations that come to his office are committed by for-profit colleges and universities. “What is the floor for portability” of state certification, he asked?

Darcy Hardy, assistant vice chancellor and executive director at the University of Texas Tele-Campus, said the prospect of national accreditation could “serve as incentive” for states that have questionable accreditation practices.

“People would want to be part of that group,” Hardy said. “That could be a positive fallout.”

Alabama, Mississippi, Wyoming, and Idaho are among states that have bolstered accreditation requirements, along with California, where state lawmakers passed a bill this week that establishes an agency that will oversee more than 1,600 vocational and for-profit institutions that have gone without regulation since 2007. The new agency will examine a college’s faculty qualifications, financial dealings, and facilities starting in January.

Denny Carter

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