State joins online higher education consortium


LANSING — Michigan has joined a consortium of other states designed to improve online education and increase access while saving money for colleges and universities.

According to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, before gaining acceptance into the reciprocity agreement, Michigan was one of several states that did not regulate distance education providers. Those not located in Michigan were not required to register or meet guidelines to offer online education courses to Michigan residents.

The state had received more than 1,500 inquiries from out-of-state institutions requesting approval or exemption to offer distance education to its residents.

The online class structures vary. For example, Grand Valley State University has only hybrid courses — a blend of online and in-class education — so out-of-state students cannot attend.

Earlier this year, seeking the improvement of online education programs, Michigan joined the national reciprocity agreement.

The Midwestern State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement will help higher education institutions that already offer online courses, as well as those that want to do so, said director Jennifer Parks.

Joining the consortium has a number of benefits for both students and institutions. For the 2014-2015 year, M-SARA had a total of $422,389 in funding provided by the Lumina Foundation, Gates Foundation and institutional fees.

The state in which the institution is physically located authorizes the institution to provide distance education programs to residents of other SARA states with little or no additional regulation and at no additional costs.

Jeannie Vogel, from the communications office of the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, said joining the consortium would help colleges and universities because it “reduces a rapidly growing institutional cost that is in one way or another passed along to students.”

“Schools previously needed to apply for approval in all states to provide distance education, many of which charged fees,” she said. “Requirements varied widely. Under SARA, (reciprocity) schools apply to the home state only and thus are approved in other member states. Approval criteria are standardized.”

M-SARA’s Parks said every U.S. institution that wants to offer online education faces “all kinds of rules and other barriers” that create a difficult, expensive and complex process.

“So we simplify and make it one set of rules,” Parks said of the agreement Michigan joined.

The organization’s goal is to make online education easier and to make sure students have access to the programs that meet their needs, she said.

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