Vermont has signed an agreement that will make it easier for colleges and universities to offer online courses across state lines. Currently that interstate approval process can be cumbersome, but now it’s getting streamlined.
Higher education delivered in cyberspace is growing faster than the states’ ability to regulate it. Standards and regulations vary widely across the country and it can be costly for institutions to export their online courses to another state. But in 24 states, including Vermont, a "State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement," nicknamed SARA, will make it easier and cheaper for colleges to offer online classes across geographical borders.
In effect, SARA states trust each other to monitor the quality of education providers. The SARA director for New England, Sandy Doran, compares this new pedagogical pipeline to the way states honor each other's driver's licenses.
“SARA is based on a similar principle,” Doran explained. “We trust the state of Vermont. We believe that they have a high quality institution evaluation program, accreditation program, and so we are going to allow Vermont institutions to offer programs outside the program to other states without going through an additional state authorization process.”
And other states will also have an easier time sending online education to Vermont. Cassandra Ryan, the state education official in charge of administering the new agreement, says online programs must meet strict criteria to be approved by the states they come from, so she hopes to hear fewer grievances about unscrupulous institutions. And if there are complaints, they will be posted on the SARA website.
“We get calls like that all the time, and it’s heartbreaking to hear those stories. So this does offer a little more protection, I think, for folks,” Ryan said.
Institutions pay a fee to join the SARA network, but it’s usually less than the total cost of seeking approval from a lot of different states. Participation by states is optional, and college credits are not automatically transferrable among institutions. Those decisions remain in the hands of individual colleges and universities.
Vermont students are not as likely to take online courses as their peers in many other states. But that could change as more colleges participate in the new reciprocity agreement. Vermont’s Agency of Education will begin accepting applications from in-state institutions wishing to offer online courses to students beyond our borders by July 1.