You know things are bad when state education officials should look to airport security methods for models of effective regulation. However, attempts by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to simplify the red-tape of airport security make sense in a way that the efforts of education officials do not.
TSA’s PreCheck program—an expedited security screening process that was rolled out in the wake of longer airport security lines—allows those the agency considers “known travelers” to skip much of the hassle of airport travel. The program works because all passengers—both those who participate in PreCheck and those that do not—have to undergo some kind of screening process. When it comes to online education however, many states are adopting an expedited approval process similar to PreCheck while having no rules at all for those who don’t qualify. This would be the same logic as having the most dangerous airline passengers completely skip the security process.
Twenty-five states have now adopted this bizarre approach to higher education. They have the PreCheck equivalent—an interstate compact, known as the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), that allows institutions okayed by certain other states to enroll students in their states. But out-of-state colleges that are not part of SARA can enroll these states’ students wholly unregulated. As my prior research has shown, the schools in this latter category are, in fact, disproportionately those of which students and taxpayers alike should be most wary: for-profit institutions. SARA is insufficient consumer protection but better than nothing. Nothing, however, is what many for-profit schools are choosing.
SARA is insufficient consumer protection but better than nothing. Nothing, however, is what many for-profit schools are choosing.
This is why laws recently adopted by New York and California are worth noting: they took the important step of regulating out-of-state online schools that are not approved through SARA. In doing so, they took different approaches. New York is joining SARA and requiring, for all non-SARA schools, New York reviews and approves of all degree-granting online schools wishing to enroll New Yorkers. California is simply requiring all for-profit out-of-state schools to comply with the state’s tuition recovery fund if they want to enroll Californians (there is no SARA option).
Though the new rules in these states are similar in that both assert the state’s ability to regulate postsecondary institutions based on whether a school enrolls students within that state’s borders, rather than whether schools maintain a physical location in-state, California’s legislation is much less far-reaching than that of New York. While most of the California rules are applicable only to for-profit institutions, the entirety of New York’s regulation applies regardless of the school’s market sector. The New York approach also goes further in making it clear that the state can receive and act on complaints against those out-of-state schools with the ultimate threat of revoking their permission to enroll New York residents.
It is great to see states proactively protecting residents from predatory online schools, regardless of where those schools are based. Too many states have deliberated over and ultimately signed onto SARA with the false belief that this new compact removes the need for the state to do anything more. California and New York saw the gap in the current rules—a gap that is likely to grow as the marketplace for online education expands—and responded appropriately. Other states, such as Massachusetts, which is currently deciding whether join SARA, should follow suit.