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Streamlined State Regulation Key to Distance Education Success, Advocates Say



Institutions offering distance education programs will better serve national policy goals of increasing college degree completion rates among Americans if accrediting and state licensing practices undergo streamlining on a coordinated national basis, said members of a leading national distance education coalition at its annual national strategy meeting Tuesday. 


Members of the Presidents’ Forum, a distance education coalition representing 150 U.S. higher education institutions, along with federal administrators, state officials and national association executives, met in Washington during the organization’s daylong conference entitled “Aligning State Approval and Regional Accreditation for Online Postsecondary Institutions: A National Strategy.”


Dr. James L. Applegate, senior vice president for program development at the Lumina Foundation, said Presidents’ Forum institutions and others that offer distance education should be a vital component to the mix of higher education entities that will have to meet college completion goals set by President Barack Obama as well as the Lumina Foundation.


Obama earlier this year announced that his administration has begun efforts to restore the U.S. to the global leader in college degree completion by 2020. The U.S. ranked 12th in the world in 2006 among nations for college completion between 25- to 34-year-olds, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.  The Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a strong backer of distance education, has set a national goal of helping boost American college degree completion from roughly 40 percent to 60 percent.


“The mission of the Lumina Foundation is to dramatically increase the number of people with high quality post-secondary credentials by 2025. We remain focused in our commitment and our mission, particularly with adult learners, first-generation (students), students of color, and low-income students because those are the populations that we have to reach if we are going to achieve these goals and if we’re going to have anything like equity and a vibrant economy in this democracy,” Applegate told the Presidents’ Forum in a keynote address.


Michael Goldstein, a Washington-based attorney and expert on distance education regulation, said there’s been virtually no progress since 1983 when he and a number of higher education officials met to draw up state policy recommendations aimed at streamlining state licensing procedures for educational institutions offering distance education programs reaching students across state lines.


“In 1983, the concern for institutions was a pedagogical one. It was whether broadcasting was a valid method in delivering higher education courses and it was a low number of schools involved. Online, however, has seen the exponential growth of distance education students,” Goldstein said.


Dr. John Ebersole, the president of Excelsior College, told Diverse there’s considerable need for national reform in state licensing and accrediting practices with online programs offered by institutions in one state and their programs reaching student in multiple states. Meeting attendees said online programs with multi-state enrollment require their institutions to expend costly efforts to meet licensing requirements on a state-by-state basis.


“The nation faces a crisis as (President Obama) has made very clear and as the speakers here this morning have made very clear. And if we’re going to respond to that crisis with a full range of action, we need to be thinking about ways of removing barriers not creating barriers,” Ebersole said.


“What we’re asking here today is not to be exempted from that oversight; what we’re asking for is to streamline the process. Let’s not do it differently 50 times. And in fact what we heard here today, and which concerns me probably the most, is that not only do I have to worry about 50 higher education boards,” Ebersole noted. “Because we have the largest nursing program in the country I have 50 nursing boards which I have to worry about.”


Excelsior College, a distance education institution based in Albany, N.Y., serves as the host institution for the Presidents’ Forum organization.

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