Advocates urge NC-SARA to add more consumer protections for online students


A dozen policy advocates and higher education groups are calling on the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, an organization that controls an important interstate distance learning pact, to bake more consumer protections into its policies. 

NC-SARA was founded in 2013 with the goal of easing regulatory burdens for online colleges operating across state lines. The private nonprofit controls a multistate reciprocity agreement that enables online colleges to avoid having to seek separate authorization for each state where they enroll students. 

The organization’s power over online education is vast — every state except for California is a member. California has resisted the pact over concerns that joining would make it unable to hold out-of-state for-profit colleges accountable. 

Around 1,100 public colleges participate in the state reciprocity agreement, along with around 1,000 private nonprofits and almost 200 for-profits. In fall 2021, some 4.2 million students were enrolled in online programs offered by these colleges. 

But policy advocates have long complained that NC-SARA sets a low bar for consumer protections, leaving students vulnerable to predatory colleges. Moreover, they argue that the organization’s rules for participating in the compact undermine states’ abilities to apply their own consumer protection laws to out-of-state colleges operating within their borders. 

NC-SARA recently adopted new procedures for making policy changes that are meant to make the process more transparent. The organization called on stakeholders to propose policy changes by early February. 

They will have the opportunity to present their proposals during public forums later in the year, and NC-SARA’s board members are slated to vote on policy recommendations in October.

The group of influential organizations and policy advocates, including The Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and The Institute for College Access & Success, submitted a slew of proposals in January that are intended to increase consumer protections. They include allowing states to enforce their own laws against colleges participating in the compact, applying more stringent standards to for-profit colleges and increasing states’ representation on NC-SARA’s board. 

Melanie Booth, NC-SARA’s vice president for educational programs and engagement, said the organization will not comment on any of the proposals until they are reviewed by the organization’s regional steering committees. 

The proposals come at a time of increased scrutiny around online programs, especially those offered by for-profit colleges. But criticism has also mounted against nonprofit colleges, many of which contract with for-profit companies to help build their online offerings. 

Although the policy advocates’ ideas have been raised before, those involved in submitting the new proposals to NC-SARA are hopeful that recent moves by the organization — including a push for more transparency — will make board members more amenable to the changes.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Carolyn Fast, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “This seems like a potentially good time for changes to be considered and maybe even enacted because this is the first time that the NC-SARA board has launched this kind of a process, where they’re really working to get public engagement, transparency and different views.”

A ‘two-tiered’ system for students

To participate in the interstate compact, colleges must meet NC-SARA’s standards. However, in their policy proposal, the groups argued that these standards “are minimal, and offer inadequate protections to online students.” 

Some states have stronger consumer protections for college students than what’s required under the interstate compact. But the agreement prohibits members from enforcing these laws on out-of-state colleges enrolling online students located within their state lines. 


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