SARA and institutions

What type of accreditation must an institution hold to participate in SARA?

SARA institutions must be accredited by an accrediting body “recognized” by the U.S. Department of Education and whose scope of authority, as specified by the Department, includes distance education. The Department recognizes accrediting bodies for different purposes and within different categories, and some of those purposes and categories overlap. To meet the accreditation requirement for participation in SARA, an institution must hold institutional accreditation from an accrediting body:

1) which is listed by the Department in one of two categories listed on the Department’s website at http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg5.html#Nationall... (the two specific categories are Regional and National Institutional Accrediting Agencies, and Specialized Accrediting Agencies);  and

2) whose scope of authority includes distance education (as listed after the name of the accrediting body).

An institution must be fully accredited by a recognized accrediting body (not “pre-accredited,” or in “candidacy”) to qualify for participation in SARA.

Do all of a state’s eligible institutions have to join SARA if the state does?

No. Every college or university decides for itself whether to operate under SARA. In general, an institution that offers online or other distance education courses to students in several states will benefit from operating under SARA because that college may have less paperwork and fewer fees to pay. A college that only offers courses to students in one or two other states may opt to work directly with those states to obtain necessary authorization rather than joining SARA. However, that decision will depend on institutional needs and what the laws of those states require.

Can a group of related, jointly owned or connected institutions participate in SARA as a system or cluster?

No. SARA participation is by institution, so the institutions in a state system, or those with common ownership but which operate separately, must apply separately. An independently accredited entity must apply to SARA separately. A branch campus that operates under the accreditation of a main campus is not considered a separate institution for purposes of SARA.

What state is an institution’s “home state” for SARA purposes?

The home state is the state where the college’s main campus or central unit holds its principal legal domicile. NCS 1(13).

NOTE: In the event that a college disagrees with SARA staff determination of its home state and the states are in the same region, the regional compact’s SARA Steering Committee will make the final determination. If the states in question are in different compact regions, the SARA National Council will make a final determination in consultation with the affected regions.

If a physical campus offers a course or program, part of which is offered online and part of which is on the ground, does the state have jurisdiction over the entire program?

Yes. Whenever there is a physical campus, the entire program available at that site is under the jurisdiction of the state where the campus is located, subject to state law.

SARA is designed to allow states to retain full oversight capacity over any on-ground campus. That must include the entire program offered by such a campus, including such portions as are delivered online, from any source. Therefore, SARA cannot be used to “screen” part of such a program from state oversight by outsourcing part of a program to an online provider operating under SARA.

This does not prevent a campus from requiring part of its program to be done online if state law allows, it simply doesn’t qualify as operating under SARA. It would be done under normal state rules. NCS 6(1).

What fees does SARA charge institutions?

The following fee structure has been established by the National Council for SARA. These annual fees are paid to the National Council, which will distribute them to the four regions under a formula system. NCS 3(2)(a).

Enrolled FTE – Annual Fee to Participate

  • Under 2,500
    $2,000
  • 2,500-9,999
    $4,000
  • 10,000 or more
    $6,000


States are also allowed to charge a state fee to SARA participants for administering SARA, but this is not required. It is likely that states in which there are a large number of major providers of distance education will consider a SARA fee in order to ensure that consumer protection functions can be carried out. NCS 3(2)(c).

Does SARA cover class field trips across state lines or term-length group activities such as summer courses at a field station in another state?

SARA covers class field trips across state lines, but does not cover full-scale residency programs such as a summer session at a field station. NCS 3(6).

Does SARA cover short courses, weekend seminars and the like?

Physical presence under SARA is not triggered if the instruction provided for a short course or seminar takes no more than 20 classroom hours. In regard to a full-term course, it would not trigger physical presence if the instructor and students physically meet together for no more than two meetings, totaling less than six hours. NCS 3(7).

Does SARA cover graduate work?

Yes. SARA covers undergraduate and graduate programs and courses. But see special provisions for licensed professions, noted in that section of FAQs.

Does SARA cover “test prep” and other similar training programs offered by entities that are not degree-granting institutions?

No. Although these business activities often claim to prepare students for exams offered by a degree-granting provider, they are not covered by SARA.

NOTE: SARA does cover exam preparation activity offered by a SARA participant accredited degree-granting institution that is integral to a course or program offered by that institution among SARA member states.

Does SARA cover instructional activities by third-party providers that have contracted with a SARA participant institution?

A SARA participant institution may hire third-party providers to offer instruction contained within a program that is otherwise SARA-eligible, assuming that the instruction otherwise meets SARA standards, institutional requirements and requirements of accrediting bodies. However, the degree-granting institution cannot delegate any SARA-related problem-solving functions to a third-party provider, nor may it use the third-party provider as its vehicle for contacting or working with a state. Contacts between a third-party provider and any SARA office must go through the degree-granting institution that is approved to operate under SARA by its home state. NCS 3(8).

My institution is a public university. Is it exempt from these rules?

Public universities often have special exemptions inside the state from which they obtained their charter or state license to issue degrees. However, these exemptions stop at the state border. A public university has no exemptions outside its home state in most cases and is treated in most states the same way any other nondomestic provider is. Public institutions will need to apply to their state’s designated SARA agency for approval to offer distance education interstate under the reciprocity agreement.

Can a public university board serve as the state agency responsible for investigating and resolving issues under SARA?

Yes, if the board is responsible for more than one separately accredited institution and has the ability to require an institution to rectify a problem. If a board is responsible only for one accredited institution or does not have enforcement authority over its institution(s), it cannot serve as the SARA oversight agency.

NOTE: The National Council for SARA recognizes that this is a gray area with many possible scenarios. The Council will consider individual cases on their merits and may accept alternate configurations if it finds that the structure is likely to result in adequate student protection. A board may under some conditions acquire enforcement authority solely for purposes of SARA even though it otherwise has no oversight of a particular institution.

My institution is chartered by the U.S. Congress. How does it fall under SARA?

For purposes of SARA, a college or university that is owned by the federal government, such as the Air Force Academy, is considered to have the authority to offer courses online to residents of any state and SARA will not be involved in regulating such colleges.

If a federally chartered college is located in Washington, D.C. and is privately owned or is owned by the government of the District of Columbia, SARA will treat it as a D.C. entity, and D.C. will have the opportunity to join SARA (as will U.S. territories).

My college is owned by a federally recognized Indian tribe. How does it fit into SARA?

This question is still being researched by SARA staff. SARA intends to include any otherwise eligible tribal college in SARA and recognizes that many member colleges of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) provide significant online education, but there are legal complexities involved because states cannot establish certain legal relationships with a tribe without federal permission, owing to the nature of tribal treaties with the U.S. government.

My institution is not accredited by a federally recognized accrediting body. Can it participate in SARA?

No, only institutions accredited by a federally recognized institutional accrediting association can operate under SARA. NCS 3(1).

My college is a career school that does not offer any degrees. Can it operate under SARA?

No, only institutions that offer degrees can operate under SARA. However, a degree-granting institution that operates under SARA can also offer nondegree programs if desired. NCS 3(1).

My college is based in Canada but offers online degrees to U.S. residents. Can it operate under SARA?

No, only colleges that are based in a U.S. state or territory are eligible to participate in SARA, even if they are accredited by a U.S. accrediting body. NCS 3(1).

Can a recently established degree-granting college located in a SARA member state operate under SARA?

Yes, once it achieves accreditation by a federally recognized institutional accrediting association.

Once an institution is accepted for SARA membership, can it be removed?

Yes. An institution that does not renew its participation agreement with its home state annually is no longer eligible to participate in SARA. At the time of renewal, the state must determine whether the institution still meets SARA requirements. An institution can also be removed at any time for violation of SARA standards by its home state or by the SARA regional compact under which it operates. NCS 3(3).

Does SARA cover all interstate placements of students in clinical sites and practica, or only those placements that are related to a distance-ed program?

SARA covers all interstate placements in clinical or practica situations among SARA member states, no matter the nature of the main program.However, some such placements may also be subject to the rules of professional licensing boards, in which case the placement must also meet such requirements.SARA does not supersede professional requirements imposed by such boards.

If an institution is covered by SARA for its interstate distance education offerings, does its interstate advertising and recruitment for its on-ground courses also fall under SARA?

All interstate recruitment activity by a SARA-authorized institution in another SARA member state falls under SARA policies and standards.  This includes college fairs, recruitment for campus-based programs in another state and recruitment for distance education programs.  Note that all recruitment by a SARA provider therefore must meet the SARA standards for accuracy, truthfulness, etc. NCS 4.

Recruitment by a person acting in a state for courses offered at a physical campus in the same state is not covered by SARA.

NOTE: This interpretation revises and changes the original SARA staff opinion expressed in the fall 2013 FAQs.

If a SARA  participant college offers a non-credit clinical or field placement in another SARA state, is that covered by SARA?

Yes.

If a college has a pre-existing contract for placement of students in clinical sites, and that contract allows for more students or a longer period of time than SARA allows, does participating in SARA invalidate the contract?

No. SARA has no effect on pre-existing contracts of this nature. However, such contracts must be in compliance with existing state law in the state where the clinicals take place at the time the institution begins operating under SARA. When such a contract is revised or renegotiated, and both states are SARA members, SARA rules apply to future contracts. 

NOTE: SARA staff intends to recommend to the National Council for SARA a policy that will set a limit to the length of time that an “auto-renewal” contract that is not in compliance with SARA can run. Proposed language will be made available for comment in that process.

Why does SARA use the U.S Department of Education’s financial responsibility composite scores to assess the financial soundness of non-public institutions that seek to participate in SARA?

Students deserve assurance that SARA institutions from which they take courses and programs will remain in operation and not close due to financial problems. Distance education students likely have less information than campus-based students with which to evaluate an institution’s viability; in most cases, they can’t visit the campus, talk directly with institutional representatives, etc. While it is not possible to remove completely the risk of institutional closure, reasonable attempts to lessen that risk in regard to SARA institutions are desirable.

As a fundamental principle, SARA avoids developing new mechanisms and structures when sufficient ones already exist. That is why the initiative builds on the work of the “accountability triad” (the federal government, the states, and recognized accreditors) and the regional education compacts. Ideally, a financial assessment system for SARA would be uniform across the country, clear and readily understandable, already in place, well-regarded in the community, and reliable in evaluating whether an institution is in significant financial trouble and at risk of closure.

No current system meets all of those desirable qualities. The approach taken by the U.S. Department of Education has been in place for many years. It is applied across the country to all non-public institutions participating in federal Title IV programs, and it relies on the administrative capabilities of the Department, including the ability to investigate and audit. Unfortunately, it has been severely criticized by some as being based on outdated accounting approaches, inaccurately assessing the financial health of many institutions (i.e., identifying as financially troubled many institutions thought to be sound), and being unevenly applied.

Much of that criticism has come from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) and representatives of some of its member institutions. They have also criticized SARA for using the Department’s scores to determine (in part) a non-public institution’s eligibility for SARA. NAICU believes the Department’s work in this area is seriously flawed, both in design and application. [1]

This issue was discussed at each step of the development of SARA. It was considered by the Presidents’ Forum/Council of State Governments drafting team, the SARA development committees in each of the four regional compacts, the National Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, and NC-SARA itself.  Use of the Department’s scores to determine (in part) a non-public institution’s financial soundness for SARA purposes was affirmed at each step. The following paragraphs explain why.

Each SARA development group examined the question of whether there should be a financial soundness requirement at all; each group decided that there should be. Various alternatives were then considered. NAICU suggested that all institutions approved to participate in Title IV programs be allowed to participate in SARA, with no other financial expectations. The overwhelming majority of each group involved in the development of SARA believed that standard would be too low to support the consumer protection goals of SARA.

The possibility of allowing each SARA state to set its own financial expectations was discussed; that approach was rejected because it would not yield uniform standards, therefore undermining reciprocity. The possibility of having SARA develop and carry out its own financial evaluation system was also considered; that was rejected because of the likely difficulty of reaching consensus, the delay and cost that developing a new system would require, and the fact that SARA would lack the necessary investigative and auditing authority and capacity.

After much discussion, each group involved in the development of SARA reached the conclusion that incorporation of the Department’s system for assessing an institution’s financial soundness, while flawed, offered the best available approach for SARA purposes.

SARA has acknowledged the shortcomings of the Department’s system and the criticisms made of that system in two ways. First, SARA allows some institutional “wiggle room.” An institution with a composite score of 1.0-1.49 has the opportunity to make the case to its home state that it is nevertheless sufficiently financially stable to justify state approval to participate in SARA. (The general threshold for the financial soundness requirement is 1.5.) Second, the regional compacts, the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education[2], and NC-SARA have all recommended that the Department review its methodology for determining institutional financial soundness.

[1] NAICU: Report of the Financial Responsibility Task Force, November 2012 (http://www.naicu.edu/docLib/20121119_NAICUFinan.Resp.FinalReport.pdf)

[2] See http://nc-sara.org/files/docs/Commission-on-Regulation-of-Postsecondary-Distance-Education-Draft-Recommendations.pdf   pages 28-29 additional discussion.

Does SARA encompass hybrid programs in which some courses within a program are online while other components are residential at the host campus?

SARA covers those portions of such a program that take place via distance education across state lines among SARA member states. SARA covers single courses as well as programs. That includes courses that may not be credit-bearing, as long as they are offered by an accredited degree-granting institution. Whether the student is degree-seeking is irrelevant.

Note: If distance education activity covered by SARA is part of a course or program that is offered by an on-ground institution in the host state, the oversight agency in the host state may require the institution to provide information about the entire activity, including the part that is offered under SARA. This is true because otherwise the host state could not effectively evaluate and oversee the on-ground portion of the program.

Can an institution that does not offer distance education (online courses, interactive video, etc.) participate in SARA in order to obtain the benefits of SARA for purposes of placing students in supervised field experiences?

Yes. Supervised field experiences are considered distance education for purposes of SARA.

NOTE: Because SARA treats supervised field experiences as distance education under the agreements, an institution that meets SARA eligibility requirements and has any programs using such placements may participate in SARA even if it does not offer other kinds of distance education.

Are dual-credit courses offered in high schools by SARA participant institutions covered by SARA?

Yes, if they result in a direct award of college credit or some other kind of postsecondary award or certificate.  They are not covered if they are alternative high school completion courses that don't carry a postsecondary award, or classes such as Advanced Placement, for which award of credit is variable and discretionary upon future college enrollment.
 
NOTE: It is important to distinguish these activities because SARA only covers postsecondary work. K-12 level courses are not postsecondary. In addition, SARA does not supersede any state laws that cover the operation of colleges delivering instruction inside K-12 schools. In such cases, the state’s K-12 regulatory requirements still apply.

If an institution participates in SARA, does that mean it must accept transfer credits from other SARA institutions?

No.  SARA has no impact on an institution’s policies and decisions about the acceptance of transfer credit. Those remain at the discretion of the institution, subject only to relevant state laws or requirements.