On January 22, 2018 the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law released its report on state oversight of private for-profit postsecondary educational institutions.
The report can be found here: http://www.caichildlaw.org/FailingU.html
While the report provides a useful analysis of the variances of state laws regarding the oversight of for-profit postsecondary institutions, it contains what we believe are unfounded criticisms of SARA, the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement. Indeed, the report’s methodology of scoring each state’s “laws regulations, and accountability measures related to the private, for-profit postsecondary institutions in that state” makes all 48 SARA states ineligible to receive the 50 bonus points awarded to the two remaining non-SARA states: California and Massachusetts. (Massachusetts has passed legislation enabling it to join SARA; the state is currently preparing its application.) For reasons detailed below, we believe the exact opposite scoring would be more justified.
The report declares that: “State membership in NC-SARA fails to guarantee sufficient consumer protection standards, minimum performance standards, or minimum standards with regard to state inspection, oversight, and regulation of private for-profit postsecondary institutions.” And “NC-SARA gives for-profit schools an incentive to locate in states with weak regulation, which gives states motivation to maintain leniency in their oversight and regulation.” Actually, SARA requirements are the exact opposite.
The National Council for SARA has specific, uniform, nationwide consumer protection standards for all participating institutions, including for-profit institutions, which make up about six percent of SARA’s 1,750 participating institutions. Those standards require appropriate institutional behavior regarding:
1. Veracity of recruitment and marketing materials;
2. Accuracy of job placement data;
3. Accuracy of information about tuition, fees and financial aid;
4. Complete and accurate admission requirements for courses and programs;
5. Accuracy of information about the institution’s accreditation and/or any programmatic/specialized accreditation held by the institution’s programs;
6. Accuracy of information about whether course work meets any relevant professional licensing requirements or the requirements of specialized accrediting bodies;
7. Accuracy of information about whether the institution’s course work will transfer to other institutions; and
8. Operation of distance education programs consistent with practices expected by institutional accreditors (and, if applicable, programmatic/specialized accreditors) and/or the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education, adopted in 2011 by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions. (All SARA institutions – whether regionally or nationally accredited – must comply with those Guidelines.)
In addition, non-public SARA institutions (both non-profit and for-profit) must annually demonstrate their financial strength relative to metrics designed by the U.S. Department of Education to identify financially troubled institutions. In fact, SARA is sometimes criticized for having financial stability standards that are too high, not too low.
SARA institutions must re-apply to their state each year, and institutions that fail to meet SARA standards are not allowed to continue to participate. (States re-apply every two years.) Each institution’s “home” state enforces SARA’s standards, which are consistent across the country and apply to all types of SARA institutions. While some states do focus less attention than others on the regulation of for-profit institutions located within their borders, if those institutions are approved by their states to participate in SARA, and they deliver distance education to students in other SARA states (which is what SARA is all about), those institutions must meet SARA provisions.
For SARA purposes, there is therefore no benefit to an institution seeking to “locate in states with weak regulation,” because SARA provisions are uniform across the country. No SARA institutions are exempt from meeting required SARA standards due to their size, prestige, wealth, political influence, accreditation, religious affiliation, or sector (public, independent non-profit, independent for-profit). And nothing within SARA reduces the authority of any member state’s attorney general to investigate and deal with fraud, misrepresentation or abuse on the part of any institution – including SARA institutions within or outside the state. It stretches credulity to believe that 48 states would have joined SARA if it required such a forfeiture of authority by their attorneys general.
Ironically, the wide variance of state “laws regulations, and accountability measures related to the private, for-profit postsecondary institutions in that state” identified by Failing U is the exact reason why SARA represents a significant step forward in appropriate oversite of postsecondary distance education delivered across state lines.
Additional information about NC-SARA and SARA in general is available at www.nc-sara.org. Under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3), NC-SARA has been designated by the Internal Revenue Service to be a federal-tax-exempt organization.
Marshall A. Hill
Executive Director, NC-SARA
January 26, 2018