In the last days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education clarified that state authorization reciprocity agreements (SARAs) “are a satisfactory means to obtain authorization” for distance education programs under the Department’s December 19, 2016 State Authorization Final Regulations.

The Final Regulations raised some questions about the validity of SARAs, which arose in an effort to unify the patchwork of individual state distance education authorization requirements for Title IV Federal Student Aid eligibility. The regulations indicate that SARAs may satisfy state authorization requirements; but they also say that SARAs do not prohibit states from enforcing their “own statutes and regulations, whether general or specifically directed at all or a subgroup of educational institutions.” This led colleges and universities to question whether the Department would recognize a SARA as authorizing education in a state—or whether they would nevertheless need to sort each state’s laws to confirm authorization.

In a January 18 letter from Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell to the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, the Department reaffirms SARAs except where—to summarize—those SARAs are contrary to the laws of the states entering them. Noting the Department’s inability to referee disagreements between state agencies, the letter says that a state cannot supplant its own laws by entering a SARA: “the regulation does not allow [SARAs] to supersede other State laws if there are conflicts within State law that have not been resolved by the States themselves by making amendments to statutes or regulations.”

What this means to you

It remains to be seen whether this guidance—or the Final Regulations themselves—will survive the transition of administrations. For now, it narrows uncertainty surrounding SARAs to situations where states have internal conflicts between their laws and their SARAs. Institutions of higher education offering distance education should continue to prepare for the current July 1, 2018 implementation date for the regulations.