Participation with NC-SARA spurs some online enrollment growth, report says

Dive Brief:

  • Colleges that participate in a multistate reciprocity agreement for online education see growth in the number of students who enroll in distance learning courses, according to a new analysis

  • Institutions that work with NC-SARA — the organization that controls the U.S.’ sole such reciprocity agreement — enroll an estimated 46 more students annually in fully online coursework compared to colleges that do not, the report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found.

  • For-profit colleges and those with existing significant online enrollments do not benefit any more than other institutions from joining NC-SARA’s network, according to the research.

Dive Insight:

The report, compiled by consultant Ithaka S+R with the support of SHEEO and funder Arnold Ventures, puts new focus on NC-SARA, which was developed out of the desire to find an easier way to enroll students in online courses across state lines. 

Colleges that wanted to accept out-of-state students into their online programs needed to get authorization from every state in which those students resided, creating new challenges amid a rise in digital learning. NC-SARA, which started in 2014, sought to remedy this by providing a reciprocity agreement that states and colleges can opt into, so they don’t need every state’s authorization.

Every state except California participates in the NC-SARA agreement, so its policies carry great weight. Yet the organization has been criticized for having poor standards. Critics of the arrangement argue that it allows institutions, particularly opportunistic for-profit colleges, to secure authorization from states with the weakest standards, the SHEEO report notes. 

The research largely highlights the benefits of NC-SARA, however. It examined federal enrollment data from more than 3,200 institutions and found more students enrolled every year in online and hybrid programs at participating colleges. 

The enrollment bump was more noticeable among institutions that worked with NC-SARA early, with an estimated 121 more students, or a 10% increase, enrolling in their online programs every year versus colleges that were not part of the pact. 

Researchers hypothesized that for-profit schools, which respond to changes in the market more quickly, would see a big enrollment increase after joining the agreement. But this was not the case, and for-profit colleges did not benefit more than any other participating college, the analysis found. 

For-profit institutions “had a strong foothold” in the online education sector prior to when NC-SARA began, the report notes, “so they may have already invested resources to secure authorization in multiple states.” A reciprocity deal may have had a small effect on their pool of prospective students, it says. 

The report also offers suggestions for future research, including studying student outcomes at participating NC-SARA institutions and examining colleges’ and states’ motivations to discern whether schools are shopping around for states with middling authorization standards

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