Report Examines Savings for Schools Participating in Interstate Distance Education Pact

Related Topics in the Ref Desk: Distance education

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The pandemic has given new meaning to what distance education looks like for institutions of higher education. Practically overnight, the entire landscape of learning changed due to the impact of the coronavirus, leaving students and their schools to adapt on the fly. 

With the physical spaces in which education is offered shifting over the course of the past several years, institutions are increasingly broadening their reach to students outside of the state the school is in, hence the importance of State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA), which streamline the authorization process for institutions through a set of agreements between member states, districts, and territories to establish national standards for interstate distance education.

A new report published this week by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and commissioned by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) sought to highlight the cost savings for SARA participating institutions and examine in what aspects the agreements help schools save.

The report found that SARA participating institutions saved an average of nearly $70,000 each year. Of the 171 institutions that responded with complete data to the survey, the report found that schools pay between $3,351 and $11,221 for initial authorization, and then depending on enrollment, between $3,258 and $11,033 to renew their authorization each year.

Schools not involved in SARA must go through the process of compiling and submitting applications to provide distance education across state lines, which is often a time-consuming and expensive process. The report found that those schools pay on average $75,000 a year to renew their authorizations and roughly $100,000 for initial authorization, regardless of enrollment. 

Overall, the average institution would spend about 38 times as much for initial authorization, and more than 13 times as much annually as a non-SARA participant, the report notes.

All in all, the report estimates the total cost savings across all SARA participating institutions is $402 million on initial authorization and $133 million annually on renewal, savings they say are passed on to students in the form of reduced tuition and fees.

The report also included feedback from compliance officers at institutions touting the value of SARA participation, saying that it has reduced bureaucracy, enhanced compliance, and expanded opportunities to students in states that wouldn’t have otherwise been able to enroll.

Further, the prevalence of SARA-participating institutions — now at more than 2,000 — means students have greater options of interstate distance education program offerings. 

Members of NC-SARA agree to shared national standards that make it easier for them to offer online programming across state lines. There are 49 states participating in the agreement, with the exception of California. The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands also participate in the agreement.

Providing data to NC-SARA is a condition of being a member institution, helping them compile data on the number of out-of-state students studying online for the past four years and averages on the cost to participate in the agreement for institutions. 

Since not all states have adequate distance education oversight, SARA participation ensures a level of program quality and value by mandating a baseline of consumer protections for students, according to the report.

“When states join SARA, they are required to follow uniform processes for approving eligible institutions’ participation,” the report concludes. “SARA’s policies help protect students and provide benefits to both states and institutions carrying out distance education in multiple states.”

To further promote the savings associated with SARA participation, NC-SARA will soon be releasing a cost savings calculator to determine how much is saved by state and program involvement.


Publication Date: 4/22/2021

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