State Update

More States Join the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement

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As you may recall, the January 2014 issue of the ADEA State Update featured an article on the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA). SARA is an agreement among member states, districts and territories that establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education courses and programs. It is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by postsecondary institutions based in another state. SARA is overseen by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), and administered by four regional education compacts (the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, New England Board of Higher Education, Southern Regional Education Board and Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE)).

The members of SARA are states, not institutions or students. State membership is voluntary.[1] Therefore a state “joins” or becomes a “member” of SARA while a college or university “operates under” or “participates in” SARA. States join SARA through their respective regional compact.

To join SARA, a state must: 

  • Determine if the state wants to participate,
  • Make any needed changes to state statutes or rules,
  • Identify one or more agencies to solicit and approve participation of in-state institutions and resolve complaints,
  • Adopt an in-state funding model (if needed), and
  • Develop and submit SARA plan to the state’s regional compact.

States began applying to SARA in early 2014. According to NC-SARA, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Washington state have been approved by the WICHE as the first states in the compact’s region to become members of the WICHE State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (W-SARA). Combined, these states have 258 accredited higher education institutions. These states join Indiana and North Dakota, which were approved by the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) in February and April, respectively.

Any degree-granting institution based in the United States, holding proper authorization from Congress, a U.S. state or a federally recognized Indian tribe, and holding accreditation from an accrediting association recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education, is eligible to apply to its home state to participate in SARA if that state is a SARA member. Degree-granting institutions may be required to pay a participation fee to NC-SARA, and an additional fee may be charged by their home state. 

To view state authorization legislation introduced during the 2014 legislative session, please visit the ADEA United States Interactive Legislative Tracking Map and select “state authorization” from the dropdown menu.

On the federal level, there has also been increased activity with regard to state authorization. In May, negotiations came to a grinding halt as members of the Program Integrity and Improvement Negotiated Rulemaking Committee failed to reach an agreement on the U.S. Department of Education’s revision of a proposed rule to mandate that all states require distance education programs to obtain permission in each state in which they operate an online education program. As a result of the failed negotiations, the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) can now move ahead in re-writing its own version of the state authorization rule.[2

On June 24, the USDE published notice in the Federal Register delaying the deadline for colleges to comply with a requirement that they obtain authorization from regulators in each state in which they are physically located. The rule was slated to take effect July 2014, but the USDE is pushing the deadline back to July 1, 2015. This is the second time the USDE has delayed the deadline.


[1] SARA is a voluntary initiative funded by Lumina Foundation during its startup phase and by user fees from participating institutions thereafter. SARA has its own board called the National Council for SARA. Thus, SARA is not operated by the federal government.

[2] You may recall that in 2012 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against the USDE’s state authorization rule on procedural grounds, finding that the regulation under 34 CFR 600.9(c) is not a logical outgrowth of the USDE’s proposed rules. The Court remanded the case to the district court with instructions to remand the regulation to the USDE for reconsideration consistent with the D.C. Circuit's opinion. In order to address the procedural concerns identified by the D.C. Circuit, the USDE sought to make regulatory changes and added state authorization to the list of topics to be addressed by the negotiated rulemaking committee.