SARA and the states

How does a state join SARA?

There is a uniform SARA application process through which a state will be required to demonstrate to its regional compact that it meets the standards established for participation in the interstate reciprocity agreement. Key actions for a state are:

  1. Determine which state agency, if any, has the legal authority to sign an interstate agreement governing distance education laws for both public and private colleges. The authority must be sufficient that once the state signs, its existing laws are waived for SARA activity both to and from the state. If legislation is needed to establish such authority, obtain sample laws if needed from the National Council for SARA office.
  2. Determine which state agency will be the SARA portal agency. This is the “lead” agency for SARA, responsible for contact with other states and students from other states, but it need not be a college governing board. It can work with other agencies as needed for problem-solving.
  3. Determine whether state law allows the state’s SARA portal agency, or a combination of agencies, to investigate and resolve complaints against all degree-granting institutions in the state, public and private. Federal law requires that such processes exist, and a state must provide documentation of such processes to join SARA.

Can a state withdraw from SARA?

Yes, a state may withdraw from SARA by providing 90 days written notice from an appropriate state authority to its regional compact. Any institutions operating under SARA from that state may continue to do so to the conclusion of the current term or 90 days after the date of receipt of notice of withdrawal, whichever is later, but not to exceed six months from the date the notice was received by the regional compact. NCS 2(2).

Are any sample statutes or other laws available for states that want to join SARA?

SARA can refer states to SARA member states for examples of existing laws. States will need to work with their own legal counsel to ensure that unique state needs are met.

Does the state have to assign all SARA problem-solving to the same state agency?

No. The problem-solving functions need not be conducted by the same state agency for all colleges and universities, but every institution participating in SARA must be under the jurisdiction of at least one state agency or entity for purposes of resolving problems arising from its interstate operations. Thus the board of regents for a system of public colleges could serve as the problem-solving entity for a multi-campus public university while a different office could handle the same functions for private colleges. NCS 2(5)(d).

Does a state have to establish a new agency to handle SARA activity?

No. A state can assign SARA duties to an existing agency or entity. In some cases this may require statutory changes, in other cases a “blanket” law governing the state’s membership in SARA could establish the authority.

If the state requires a nonpublic institution to accept state agency oversight for purposes of interstate activity under SARA, does the state also have authority over that college’s in-state activities?

No. SARA only applies to interstate distance education activity.

If a state joins SARA and SARA rules supersede state laws for purposes of oversight of SARA-member programs coming into the state, does the state lose its oversight laws completely?

No. States will need to retain all of their current oversight rules covering distance education offerings because some states may not join SARA, some institutions in SARA states may choose not to operate under SARA and SARA does not cover offerings by non-U.S. providers.

Can a SARA member state require a higher federal financial responsibility score for its nonpublic colleges and universities than SARA requires for institutional participation?

Yes, if that standard is applied to the institutions as part of the state’s general rules for operating in the state. The state cannot apply a standard higher than the SARA standard solely for eligibility screening for an institution’s participation in SARA. For this reason, in a state that applies a higher standard to its nonpublic providers, those providers will by definition operate under a higher standard for purposes of SARA, but not because of SARA rules. NCS 2(5)(c).

Can a college operating under SARA start a campus on the ground in another SARA member state without going through the host state’s authorization procedures?

No. SARA only applies to distance education activity, with a very limited number of on-ground or group activities included. NCS 3(4).

What issues fall under “consumer protection” in SARA?

SARA considers consumer protection to cover any dishonest or fraudulent activity by a provider, including giving false or misleading information to a student. It also includes operating a course or program contrary to practices set forth in the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education Programs (Online Learning) in such a way that harms a student. Examples of issues that may arise include, but are not limited to:

  • Veracity of recruitment and marketing materials;
  • Accuracy of job placement data;
  • Accuracy of information about tuition, fees and financial aid;
  • Complete and accurate admission requirements for courses and programs;
  • Accuracy of information about the institution’s accreditation and/or any programmatic/specialized accreditation held by the institution’s programs;
  • Accuracy of information about whether course work meets any relevant professional licensing requirements or the requirements of specialized accrediting bodies;
  • Accuracy of information about whether the institution’s course work will transfer to other institutions; and
  • Operation of distance education programs consistent with practices expected by institutional accreditors (and, if applicable, programmatic/specialized accreditors) and/or the C-RAC Guidelines for distance education.

Is the requirement under SARA that a state have a complaint process for all of its institutions something that SARA invented?

No. It is in existing federal law and predates SARA. The requirement that states have such a complaint process is found in 34 CFR 600.9(a)(1) (as amended in 2010) and reads:

Title 34: Education 
PART 600—INSTITUTIONAL ELIGIBILITY UNDER THE HIGHER EDUCATION ACT OF 1965, AS AMENDED 
Subpart A—General

§600.9   State authorization.

(a)(1) An institution described under §§600.4, 600.5, and 600.6 is legally authorized by a State if the State has a process to review and appropriately act on complaints concerning the institution including enforcing applicable State laws, and the institution meets the provisions of paragraphs (a)(1)(i), (a)(1)(ii), or (b) of this section.

The U.S. Department of Education has commented on the meaning of this statement as follows.

Complaints Process (C)

C-Q1: Even if certain institutions are exempt from a State’s approval or licensure requirements, is there still a requirement for the State to have a process to resolve complaints involving those institutions? In addition, could the State statutorily delegate this function to a non-State entity, such as an institution’s governing board or a trade association?

C-A1: The State must have a process to handle complaints for all institutions in the State, except federally run institutions (including the service academies) and tribal institutions such as tribally controlled community colleges. For purposes of HEA eligibility under these regulations, the State remains responsible for responding to complaints about institutions in the State regardless of what body or entity actually manages complaints. The Department will only recognize a delegation that maintains the final authority with the State. This responsibility can be met by the offices of a State’s Attorney General, or by a more specialized State entity. A State, upon considering a complaint, may refer it to other appropriate entities, such as an institution’s accrediting agency, for final resolution. [Guidance issued 3/17/2011]

C-Q2: The Department appears to acknowledge that a State may have a combination of agencies or officials to handle complaints. If multiple agencies are used to handle complaints, do they need to have any affiliation or expertise with postsecondary education? For example, could the State’s generic consumer protection agency act on complaints?

C-A2: Pursuant to section 600.9(a)(1), the Department did not specify that a single State agency must handle complaints, nor did it specify any particular expertise on the part of the State agency. If multiple agencies are applicable to an institution, the institution, under section 668.43(b), must provide its students or prospective students with contact information for filing complaints with the institution’s State approval or licensing entity and any other relevant State official or agency that would appropriately handle a student’s complaint. [Guidance issued 3/17/2011]

C-Q3: For purposes of acting on complaints, would a governing board that has oversight of multiple institutions as part of a State university system satisfy the requirement that a complainant have access to a process that is independent of any institution?

C-A3: As stated in the preamble to the final regulations (75 FR 66866 (Oct. 29, 2010)), "The State is not permitted to rely on institutional complaint and sanctioning processes in resolving complaints it receives as these do not provide the necessary independent process for reviewing a complaint. A State may, however, monitor an institution’s complaint resolution process to determine whether it is addressing the concerns that are raised within it." A State may rely on a governing board or central office of a State-wide system of public institutions if the State has made the determination the governing board or central office is sufficiently independent to provide successful oversight of complaints for the institutions in that system. It would not be acceptable for such a board or central office to handle complaints for other institutions in the State. [Guidance issued 3/17/2011]

If a state joins SARA, will the state lose fee revenue from colleges in other SARA states?

If a state currently charges applicant or review fees for distance education courses, including most field placements and clinicals, to colleges and universities located in other states, the state will lose that revenue over time as states join SARA. This revenue loss will likely take place incrementally over a period of several years.

However, the state may also gain fee revenue from its own institutions that participate in SARA if the state chooses to establish a SARA participation fee.

If a home state does not currently handle investigations and consumer protection for all of its distance education providers, will the home state need to start doing that?

Yes. SARA centralizes primary responsibility for problem-solving in the home state, therefore the home state needs to be prepared to handle, in many cases, a larger volume of communication and issues for its domiciled providers, even as its work with providers based in other states decreases. Whether this change of workload requires additional revenue from in-state sources will vary by state, but states that have a large number of online providers may encounter significant workload increases, while those with few providers may see very little change.

Does SARA cover distance education activity by an institution in a state to residents of the same state?

No. SARA only covers distance education that crosses state lines. NCS 3(4).

If a corporation owns several degree-granting institutions, is the state where the corporate headquarters is located the “home state”?

No. The corporate parent is not a degree-granting institution. The home state is where the principal location of the degree-granting institution is domiciled. This is usually also the institution that carries the accreditation for a multi-state network of privately-owned colleges. One corporate parent might own several degree-granting institutions that are domiciled in several different states.

Do the SARA standards cover recruitment activity by a SARA-authorized institution in a non-SARA state?

No.

Does SARA have a minimum number of states necessary to trigger operations under SARA, or does reciprocity among member states begin as soon as at least two states join?

SARA became operational in April 2014 after North Dakota joined with SARA’s first state Indiana (approved February 2014).

Does SARA mandate how states establish their in-state fee structures for SARA-related work?

No. States may use any fee structure that is rationally related to the state's actual or projected workload. 

Can a state increase its bonding or reserve fund requirement on institutions for which it is the home state in order to cover the potentially greater risk owing to the state’s expanded responsibility for the institution’s multistate distance education offerings?

Yes. The state is allowed to establish necessary oversight of its own institutions that choose to operate under SARA. It may charge necessary fees to do this, including any necessary bonds.

Is the state portal agency ultimately responsible for ensuring that a valid complaint results in proper redress?

Yes. Although the portal agency can delegate responsibility to investigate and resolve such complaints to another government agency (e.g., a Board of Regents) or to a special body created to handle SARA complaints for a group of institutions, SARA requires that the portal agency have and retain the function of hearing any appeals from decisions made by other agencies. The portal agency cannot merely have advisory powers; it must have the formal authority to remove any institution, public or private, from the state’s list of SARA-eligible providers if that institution fails to abide by SARA policies and standards.

If a state joins SARA, does the state give up its ability to investigate misrepresentation, fraud or other illegal activity by colleges based in other states?

No. A state retains the ability to use any of its general-purpose criminal or consumer protection laws against a college that violates those laws. What the state gives up is the ability to apply to SARA institutions laws specifically directed at colleges offering distance-education activity into the state; such oversight is centralized in the college’s home state.

If a state requires an out-of-state college to register with the secretary of state or other state registry and/or appoint an agent in the host state, does SARA affect that requirement?

No. SARA is designed to simplify regulatory oversight of interstate operations by education agencies. It does not affect the applicability of general-purpose state laws such as business registries.

Can a state require a SARA applicant institution to prove in advance of joining SARA that it will meet the standards for operating under SARA?

No. A state must accept an institution's self-certification that it will meet the standards required for operating under SARA once it is allowed to participate. However, as soon as an institution is accepted into SARA, the state portal agency has a right to evaluate whether courses or programs offered under SARA meet the C-RAC norms or other SARA requirements and must investigate any claims that the institution does not meet these requirements.

NOTE: See also the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements Policies and Standards for provisional admission to SARA. NCS 3(2).

Are states obligated to use the published federal financial responsibility score when considering an institution's eligibility for SARA?

No, a state can, if desired, require an applicant institution to provide the most recent federal score, which may in some cases be newer than what has been published.

Can a state bill a SARA participant school in order to recover the actual costs of investigating a complaint?

A state is obligated to investigate and resolve complaints arising from the operations of its own institutions under SARA. States may fund this investigative work in any reasonable way. This is a local decision. The most common practice is to charge a SARA participation fee that reflects the state’s estimated costs to manage its responsibilities under SARA. SARA policies do not preclude a billable costs approach.