BOSTON — The $40.3 billion budget that cleared the House last week includes language higher education officials say will make it easier for colleges and universities to offer online learning programs.
One of the amendment packages the House tacked on to its fiscal 2018 budget included a proposal from Minority Leader Brad Jones that would authorize Massachusetts to join 47 other states in a reciprocity agreement dealing with online learning and distance education.
Participating in the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) will allow public and private colleges and universities in Massachusetts to "offer online programs to students in other states in a much more efficient and far less costly manner," according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.
Higher education institutions "must remain nimble and innovative to respond to the interests of students and their families, ever-changing demographics, and the workforce requirements of businesses that choose to locate in the Commonwealth to be near our educated talent pool," the association said in a statement. "A growing part of that innovation involves using online, distance education programs to reach students where they live and work, and having Massachusetts be part of SARA will foster an environment that supports such innovation."
According to the New England Board of Higher Education, only Massachusetts, Florida, and California are not part of the agreement, which establishes comparable national standards for offering postsecondary distance-education courses and programs across state lines.
Because each state regulates higher education within its borders, an institution offering online programs to students living in several states would otherwise have to comply with the varying requirements and regulations of multiple state governments.
In addition to the budget amendment, Jones and Sen. Vinny deMacedo also filed separate legislation (H 2228, S 671) seeking to allow Massachusetts to sign on to the agreement.
University of Massachusetts Lowell Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, who formerly served as the school's dean of online and continuing education, testified in support of the bills at a hearing last month, saying the current process of obtaining authorization from other states to offer online programs to their residents "is an expensive, inefficient and labor-intensive enterprise."
"Beyond the fees and other financial requirements for awarding authorization, which amounts to approximately $150,000 for UMass Lowell, maintaining compliance with changing requirements for 50 states is onerous and extremely time-consuming," Moloney said in written testimony to Joint Committee on Higher Education. "The burdensome applications, which vary by state, require applying institutions to commit a full-time professional staff member to managing applications and ensuring compliance with changes to individual state processes."
The 2017 budget created a commission to study allowing the Board of Higher Education to enter interstate reciprocity agreements.
After four meetings last fall, the commission recommended that Massachusetts should join the pact, if federal education officials first adopted regulations that would bar SARA from prohibiting a state's enforcement of its own consumer protection laws around higher education. Joining without such a prohibition would require the attorney general's office to "cede its authority to enforce its regulatory requirements related to mandatory disclosures, high-pressure sales tactics, and misrepresentation," the commission wrote in its report.
In December, the U.S. Department of Education released regulations clarifying state authorization requirements for distance education, which incorporated the Massachusetts recommendations on consumer protection.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser said in a December statement that he looked forward to "having the Commonwealth submit an application to join the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement" as a result of the new regulations.