State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA)

Last Updated: 03/08/2024

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Overview

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) is a private nonprofit organization [501(c)(3)] that helps expand students’ access to educational opportunities and ensure more efficient, consistent, and effective regulation of distance education programs.

Recognizing the growing demand for distance education opportunities, higher education stakeholders – including state regulators and education leaders, accreditors, the U.S. Department of Education, and institutions – joined together in 2013 to establish State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA) to streamline regulations around distance education programs. In partnership with four regional (interstate) compacts, NC-SARA helps states, institutions, policymakers, and students understand the purpose and benefits of participating in SARA. Today, more than 2,200 institutions in 49 member states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands voluntarily participate in SARA.

A State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement is an agreement among member states that establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance education courses and programs. SARA only applies to distance education, not on-the-ground or group activities, and only focuses on U.S. distance education that crosses state lines.  SARA members are states, not institutions or students. SARA does not replace state authorization. Only accredited, federally recognized institutions can operate under SARA. SARA pertains to the approval of distance education courses and programs offered across state lines by institutions that already have degree authorization in at least one state. States have the option of becoming a member of SARA through their regional (interstate) compact: Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE, Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). Institutions within a SARA state with state authorization in their own state can also offer distance education courses and/or programs to any other SARA state member.

NC-SARA also has created and maintains the Professional Licensure Directory, which provides contact information for five programs that lead to a professional license. These programs have the most student enrollments per the data provided by SARA participating institutions: (1) Counseling, (2) Nursing, (3) Psychology, (4) Social work, and (5) Teacher Education. This resource does not house regulations or requirements for professional licensure; it is exclusively general contact information.

SARA began as a voluntary initiative initially funded by the Lumina Foundation. Since development of the pilot effort, the initiative is supported through user fees of the participating institutions. Institutions pay an annual fee to SARA to participate; the cost is based upon FTE enrollment. Individual States also have the ability to charge institutions a state fee for SARA participation.

Institutions participating in SARA annually submit data to the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements through the NC-SARA website. The data collection process complies with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

The benefits of SARA membership are generally viewed as:

  • More efficient provision of distance education to a broader market
  • Expanding access to educational offerings
  • Reducing number of other-state regulations to continually monitor and track
  • Reducing number of applications and individual state requirements
  • Reducing rapidly growing institutional costs for distance education that is in one way or another passed along to students
  • Enhancing overall quality of distance education

NC-SARA studied the impact of the COVID pandemic on its member activities to inform future activities of the Network.  An October 2022 report of 2,300+ institutions found a single-year decrease in out-of-state exclusively distance education enrollment; public and non-profit institutions most likely to enroll students through interstate programs. The number of students enrolled in exclusively distance education decreased year-over-year between 2021-2022, but is still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. Even as the need for emergency online instruction has receded, enrollment in distance education is still markedly higher than before the pandemic began. Institutions of every type—from community colleges and public universities to minority-serving institutions and special mission institutions—use distance learning to expand access and reach new student demographics.

According to the report, the majority of exclusively distance education students still reside in-state. In Fall 2021, more than 1.5 million students attended out-of-state institutions exclusively via distance education under SARA, down from 1.7 million students in Fall 2020 and the peak of the pandemic (-12%), but up from 1.3 million students in Fall 2019 (+19%). Overall, 4,258,806 students attended SARA institutions exclusively through distance education, down from 5.8 million in Fall 2020 (-27%), but up more than 1.2 million from Fall 2019 (pre-pandemic) (41%).

Partners

Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE, Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE)

Resources

NC-SARA Homepage | NC-SARA

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