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Board of Higher Education Votes to Join Agreement on Online Learning

The Mass. Board of Higher Education today authorized the state’s Commissioner of Higher Education to submit an application to join the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), a multi-state approach to regulating the growing number of online learning programs offered by colleges and universities across the United States.

The board’s unanimous vote follows an extensive review of what joining SARA would mean for the Commonwealth. Last year, Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser chaired a legislative Special Commission on Interstate Reciprocity Agreements which issued a report that was reviewed by the Board of Higher Education as part of its decision-making process to join SARA.

In December 2016, the U.S. Department of Education incorporated recommendations from the Mass. Board and Department of Higher Education, the Office of the Attorney General and the Executive Office of Education in final authorization regulations for postsecondary online education.

“As we strive to make higher education more affordable and accessible for residents of the Commonwealth, adding online learning options is a critical step in the right direction,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “We are pleased to join SARA with the assurance that we would be able to continue vital consumer protections for our students and look forward to preparing our application.”

“If Massachusetts’ application for SARA membership is approved, students in the Commonwealth will see a multitude of options in online education open up for them, and our state’s colleges and universities will find it less cumbersome and costly to offer online courses to students in other states,” Education Secretary James Peyser said.

Massachusetts will be the 49th state to join SARA, if its application is accepted by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements.

Currently, the Board of Higher Education regulates the degree-granting authority of most post-secondary institutions with a physical presence in the Commonwealth, granting them the ability to offer specific credit-bearing programs of study and to use the terms “college” or “university” in their names. At present, it does not exercise oversight over out-of-state institutions that offer only online programs to Massachusetts students. With the proliferation of distance learning providers and modalities, the need for a new, more nimble regulatory approach that will allow for greater access and options for students – while maintaining robust student protections and safeguards – has emerged.

“Massachusetts has a strong history when it comes to regulations and standards that benefit consumers, in this case, students, and we were willing to take our time in deliberating whether to join SARA rather than rush into an agreement that might shortchange them,” said Carlos E. Santiago, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education. “Today’s vote paves the way for a series of important next steps, including the drafting of regulations and solicitation of public comment as we prepare to submit our application to join SARA in 2018.”

As the only national reciprocity agreement to address state authorization, SARA requires each member state to allow online educational programs from other states to operate within its borders, based on the prior approvals that institution received in its home state. For Massachusetts-based colleges and universities, membership in SARA would eliminate the need to comply with individual states’ varying rules and approvals processes, which can be costly and time-consuming.

If Massachusetts’ application to join SARA is accepted, institutions in the Commonwealth may be able to submit applications to begin operating under SARA as early as summer, 2018.

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