Whenever an out-of-state student takes a UNLV class online, or whenever UNLV students go on field trips, take internships or do clinical work outside Nevada, the university must conform to a slew of regulations that vary from state-to-state.
“Higher education, the way our institutions teach students, hasn’t changed much over the past 100 years, except for our ability to deliver education across distance,” said Chris Heavey, interim executive vice president and provost. “This is going to continue to be an increasingly important part of our future. We must have the ability to meet the needs of our students when and where they are available to learn. And we must understand how to operate appropriately and serve students appropriately in this new environment.”
Keeping track of regulations, which range from consumer protection to quality assurance, can be nearly impossible for any single institution to manage without an army of people dedicated to analyzing and cross-checking all the rules state-by-state.
That’s why over the past few years, states have come together to form the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA). It’s a voluntary, regional approach to state oversight of postsecondary distance education among 1,993 colleges and universities across 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
UNLV has taken a leading role in the state and nationally to help higher education institutions navigate this new, increasingly complex and ever-changing frontier. The university this week held the first-ever meeting of all nine Nevada higher education institutions, members of the Nevada System of Higher Education, NC-SARA and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
“Without NC-SARA, without some level of conformity, this space would be literally a jungle,” Robert Correales, UNLV’s interim vice president for university compliance, said Monday in addressing the gathering of some 30 compliance officials from across the state. He noted that NC-SARA policies help protect students from “fly-by-night” schools whose quality otherwise couldn’t be assured, and it gives students access to quality educational opportunities beyond their state lines.
But compliance goes beyond consumer protection for students. Institutions of higher education must follow the regulations of each state in which they offer services. Failing to do so could result in serious consequences for the institution, including lawsuits and imperiling Title IV funding, which includes federal student aid, such as Pell Grants and students loans.
Funding implications for institutions who try to go it alone outside of NC-SARA can be steep, said Marianne Boeke, associate director of Policy Research and State Support at NC-SARA. According to the council’s research, fees for a higher education institution to obtain authorization to do business in each of the 50 states would cost about $350,000 a year.
“Those are costs that ultimately are passed on to students,” she said, adding that institutions in NC-SARA pay a membership of up to $6,000, which covers their activities in any of the member states and territories.
“Events like today’s workshop will bring more visibility to compliance work and will allow institutions to realize this is as important as any other area of compliance that we emphasize,” said Renee Davis, assistant vice chancellor and director of student affairs for the Nevada System of Higher Education. “UNLV really is taking a leadership role in all of this and is helping institutions throughout the state ensure we are working on this.”
UNLV’s leadership role in this arena has come mostly from Leeann Fields, the executive director of the newly formed Office of Educational Compliance. She recently was elected to the advisory group for the national State Authorization Network under the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. The network provides guidance and support for navigating regulatory compliance for out-of-state activities of post-secondary institutions.
Fields said that, until recently, many institutions across the country had been slow to recognize the importance of compliance as it relates to distance learning.
“It's more than ‘other duties as assigned,’" Fields said. Going state-by-state to get authorization can quickly overload a staff member and leave an institution at risk for liability issues.
"Right now, UNLV is the only higher education institution in the state that has a person dedicated educational compliance," she said. "For the other (NSHE) institutions, it has become my mission to give them as much help as possible.”