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.

A national set of accreditation standards for distance-learning programs would eliminate the complicated, state-by-state accreditation process, but Contreras said state standards need be similar before such as shift occurs.

“Until it comes true, you need some kind of baseline of standards that schools have to meet before you can play that game,” he said.

Hawaii’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs maintains a web site listing the names of fraudulent postsecondary schools. The site documents more than 100 alleged diploma mills and gives a summary of legal action taken against each one. For instance, Lincoln International University paid a judgment to the state and dissolved its institution. Pacific Buddhist University was dissolved last year and paid civil penalties to the state, according to the site.

Higher-education accreditation officials and university administrators first met to discuss state regulations’ impact on distance learning in 1983. Students had begun taking courses via open-broadcast TV, and the group studied how the existing state rules were unfriendly to new forms of education. Once telecommunicated learning became accepted in higher education, officials believed, a national standard would be inevitable.

“That they were optimistic is obvious,” the Presidents’ Forum report says. “That the situation would get worse over the intervening quarter century was inconceivable.”

A survey released in the Presidents’ Forum report showed that “four-fifths of the states premise their regulation of postsecondary education within their borders on ‘physical presence,'” adding that most states still apply “presence criteria” on web-based educational programs.

“We thought common sense would prevail,” Michael Goldstein, an attorney who has lobbied for regulatory changes, said of the early-1980s meeting on telecommunications. “We were wrong.”

The online education boom of the 1990s and 2000s, Goldstein said, has sparked a backlash from traditional educational forces that believe brick-and-mortar schools will lose students to web-based institutions.

“[In the 80s], there was no threat,” Goldstein said, and the popularity of online schools has “created a fear factor.”

“We need not free reign, but rationality,” he said.

Bruce Chaloux, director of the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus and a speaker at the Presidents’ Forum, said regulatory agencies should have the same approach as police do with driver’s licenses–an American’s license is valid from state to state, and a school’s accreditation should be, too.

“Let’s put the onus on [a school’s] home state to regulate,” Chaloux added. “If we can do this with driver’s licenses, we can … do this with higher education.”


Presidents’ Forum

Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs

Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization

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