Schools seek streamlined distance learning process

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Southern New Hampshire University has become one of the largest nonprofit providers of online degrees in the country, thanks in part to a staffer dedicated to seeking program approval from other states and to the half a million dollars a year it pays those states. So New Hampshire's recent decision to join an effort to streamline that process came as welcome news to the university's president.

The New England Board of Higher Education recently voted to make New Hampshire the first state in New England and the 18th nationally to join the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, which is designed to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by schools in other states. The agreement allows institutions accredited in their own states to operate in other participating states without seeking independent authorization.

"This would be a big deal for us," said SNHU President Paul LeBlanc, whose school now faces a "crazy quilt" of state regulations that vary widely and often don't seem very sensible.

"They were all really built to manage the idea of an outside institution coming into a state and building an on-the-ground presence. None of them really were designed in anticipation of a world of online education," he said. "So I think everyone who is working in that space is relieved to see some sanity coming into the process."

Based in Manchester, SNHU offers 200 online undergraduate and graduate programs across a variety of disciplines, including business, psychology, creative writing and nursing. It has about 60,000 students enrolled in the programs this year, LeBlanc said, and is seeking approval from more states to expand its reach.

The process is difficult, he said, because some states put up barriers to protect their institutions and keep out the competition. Others have seen the approval process as a way to generate more revenue and have increased their fees.

"It's a wild mix of things," he said. "The principle behind this is if you are an institution that has been through your own state's approval process and own regional accreditor's approval process, you are sort of a trusted agent and shouldn't have to go through the approval process of every other state in which you might offer programs."

While several of New Hampshire's larger public and private schools declined to comment on the initiative, Edward MacKay of the New Hampshire Higher Education Commission said the state's college and university presidents overwhelmingly support the idea. The next step, which starts in January, is for interested institutions to seek approval to participate.

Plymouth State University definitely will apply, said Julie Bernier, the university's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

"We are very pleased that New Hampshire will be part of the SARA agreement. Ultimately it is the students that will benefit by having access to their choice of affordable programs regardless of their state of residence," she said.

The reciprocity agreement is overseen by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements and is funded by a $3 million grant from Lumina Foundation and $200,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Eventually, fees paid by the institutions will pay for the initiative.

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