Hurdles for Online Schools

Inside Higher Ed:

WASHINGTON — A group of distance education leaders today plans to discuss how current state-by-state approval and licensing protocols are hampering online colleges, and how those policies might evolve to accommodate colleges that educate students in many different states via the Web.

America’s preeminence, the leaders argue, is at stake, says the Presidents’ Forum.

“American labor’s competitive edge requires work force education that avoids entanglement of online and distance educational providers in a duplicative web of processes in order to offer their services,” says a report from a task force assigned by the forum to study the issue.

That report is expected to be the focus of today’s meeting here. Its authors argue that the state-based approval system is centered around the notion that colleges are fixed in a single location that necessarily falls within the borders of a state. Since online colleges aim to teach students in multiple states, they have to go through multiple accreditation processes to achieve a nationwide presence, then satisfy various bureaucratic requirements in each state if they want to keep teaching students there.

This doesn’t strike me as accidental. Obviously, in any such system traditional brick-and-mortar institutions will enjoy a huge advantage.

The article runs down one proposed solution:

To remove these anchors from the necks of online colleges seeking a presence in each state, the task force proposes that regional accrediting organizations and their member states reach a common ground on “a specific template of state standards to which all parties would reference their individual requirements.” Under such a system, online colleges would only have to seek the approval of a single accrediting organization and a single state, just like brick-and-mortar colleges — except they would get to enroll students from all over the country. The system would be based on “reciprocal judgment”; that is, state governments and regional accreditors would have to trust each other that their accredited institutions were on the level.

We’re still a ways from online learning really catching on, but when it does it will change everything.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.