States and Quality Assurance in Online Education during COVID

Updated by on Tue, 07/21/2020 - 11:12

COVID surge in distance learning demands renewed focus on quality assurance (opinion)

Published on Inside Higher Ed ( on July 20, 2020

COVID surge in distance learning demands renewed focus on quality assurance (opinion)

The number of Americans who are enrolling in interstate distance education has reached an all-time high -- and that means the stakes have never been higher for quality assurance in online education.

As higher education and state leaders deliberate over whether students will return to campus this fall and outline steps to mitigate health risks to campus communities, strengthening the state role in ensuring educational quality is essential to the conversation. Despite the mass shifts to online instructional delivery, new social distancing requirements and myriad disruptions to campus life, students and other stakeholders will invest billions into colleges and universities this year, and they demand and deserve to have confidence that education quality will not decline.

This shifting landscape adds a new sense of urgency to long-standing questions about student access and success. Will all students have access to postsecondary opportunities in this “new normal,” and can we assure these opportunities will be of the quality necessary to provide a path forward to a meaningful credential? As leaders of two organizations that each play a central role in answering these questions, we believe enhanced state oversight, combined with available structural, policy and technical resources, will be critical to ensuring current and future postsecondary students have the necessary opportunity to both further both their personal success and, in turn, that of our nation.

States play a long-standing and vital role in institutional oversight and quality assurance. Higher education is constitutionally the function of state government, and states have a key role in authorizing institutions of higher education to operate within their state, ensuring educational quality and continuously protecting students from waste, fraud and abuse. Requirements and rigor of authorization vary, but states usually collect information from colleges on mission and values, curricula, facilities and equipment, student support services, consumer protections, and other data, all while continuously monitoring institutions operating within their state.

Notably, states should -- but not all do -- also collect information from institutions about distance education programs. Recognizing increased distance education opportunities will be integral to any educational strategy moving forward, all states should increase their focus and attention on the authorization and oversight of distance education providers.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate approximately 8.5 million students who receive federal financial aid attend colleges or graduate schools outside their primary states of residence; many of these students were likely forced to return home as campuses shut down in the spring. While data are not yet available to help us understand the intensity of the COVID-related spike in online learning, we can only assume the number of Americans who are reliant upon interstate distance education to continue their coursework has reached an all-time high.

With the fall semester shrouded in uncertainty, demand for distance education will most likely continue. The reality is that many colleges and programs have a long history and expertise within online education, but others are learning to fly the plane as it is being built. Guidance and assistance in these endeavors are more critical than ever before if we are to assure the needs of all our students are being met.

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), which was established in 2013 to help streamline and improve regulation of distance education, can serve as a constructive partner to states in enhancing quality and access to remote learning opportunities.

Before NC-SARA, institutions that wanted to provide distance education programs had to complete an arduous and costly process to obtain approval to operate in every state in which they wanted to serve students. This process limited access, accountability and learning opportunities -- and certainly would have severely hindered institutions’ ability to continue serving students virtually during the pandemic.

The NC-SARA reciprocity agreement requires institutions to meet reasonable quality and consumer protection standards necessary to provide distance learning opportunities across state lines -- essentially, an assurance between states that the institution has basic guardrails in place to protect students.

For example, all participating institutions must be accredited, in good financial standing and accountable for the performance of any third-party providers. Additionally, SARA-member states are required to investigate a variety of consumer protection issues, including truthfulness in advertising and marketing materials; accuracy of information about tuition, fees, financial aid and job placement rates; and accuracy of information related to the alignment of course work with relevant professional licensing requirements.

These are just a handful of the provisions in the SARA manual that have been implemented to help ensure students are well served in distance education, and NC-SARA will continue to explore additional avenues -- as appropriate to our role and mission -- to increase the quality and value of higher education credentials earned through distance learning programs and ensure that necessary consumer protections are in place.

Make no mistake: there are diverse opinions regarding adequate oversight of distance education. Some stakeholders have raised concerns about unevenness in the quality of authorizers and lack of sufficient consumer protection provisions. Others highlight the unparalleled success of developing a consortium that includes 49 states, three territories and over 2,100 institutions and that established baseline standards for authorization. The reality is that this diversity of opinions and policy recommendations will continue, and an open dialogue is imperative to better understand the challenges and strike a balance that serves both students and states well.

It is also important to note that NC-SARA’s requirements should only serve to augment -- and never supersede or usurp -- states’ ultimate authority to regulate and conduct strong oversight of higher education institutions. A 2019 white paper from the State Higher Education Executive Officers association describes in great detail the role states play in promoting higher education quality, noting that they are “the central actors in the higher education public accountability space” -- arguably more so than accreditors and the U.S. Department of Education. States have an unequivocal quality assurance and consumer protection responsibility and must continuously evaluate whether “new and existing institutions are capable of meeting their educational missions and are operating in the best interests of their students and the state.”

Beyond the NC-SARA requirements, it’s a troubling reality that not all states have developed their own systems to evaluate and regulate distance learning programs. States must take ownership over creating effective systems and policies designed to assure distance education quality beyond the baseline standards imposed by NC-SARA. Governors and legislatures need to ensure that their state higher education offices have the resources to implement such systems and policies. Now more than ever, students -- whether they know it or not -- depend on states to conduct meaningful oversight of higher education institutions.

However, as states grapple with budgetary challenges and economic fallout from the pandemic, many fear state postsecondary funding levels -- which have never fully recovered from the Great Recession -- will be first on the chopping block. This cannot be allowed to happen, especially not at a time when our education system is facing unprecedented challenges.

States must prioritize their education budgets to ensure appropriate oversight and accountability, while also allocating funding for institutions to develop and improve distance learning programs. The scholarship of online teaching and learning has evolved considerably over the years; distance learning is far more sophisticated and nuanced than simply videoing a lecture or posting a syllabus online, and faculty members desperately need new training and resources to revamp their courses for a virtual environment. Institutions need adequate resources to develop quality programs, and state higher education agencies need adequate resources in order to properly assess the quality of distance education providers and implement appropriate consumer protections.

In the increasingly likely scenario that the pandemic continues to create upheaval in higher education this fall, states must make the right investments to ensure the American higher education system -- lauded as the best and most innovative postsecondary system in the world -- can continue to deliver for students in the face of turmoil.

Lori Williams is president and CEO of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements. Robert E. Anderson is president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association and an NC-SARA board member.