Protecting Students and Demanding Quality

How the NC-SARA mission and policies support consumer protections in distance learning.

Since its inception, NC-SARA is, at its core, an entity designed to serve students by ensuring access to quality distance learning opportunities across state lines.

Two critical components of our mission are (1) to assure students are well-served in a rapidly-changing education landscape, and (2) to increase the quality and value of higher education credentials earned through distance learning programs.

SARA Participating Institutions: What is Required to Protect Students?

In addition to the requirement that SARA participating institutions abide by the policies in the SARA Manual as well as the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education established by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, NC-SARA has established several added consumer protection requirements that institutions must meet.

These include:

  • All SARA institutions must be accredited. Only degree-granting institutions accredited by U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agencies are permitted to apply to join SARA.
  • SARA Institutions must demonstrate healthy finances. Institutions must prove their financial stability by maintaining a U.S. Department of Education financial responsibility score of 1.5 or higher.
  • SARA institutions must uphold stringent reporting and accountability requirements. SARA institutions must notify their state if there is ever a negative change to its accreditation so states and NC-SARA can increase scrutiny and monitoring.
  • SARA institutions must find ways to deliver for students. If a SARA institution decides to close a distance learning program, the institution must either provide a reasonable alternative or offer financial compensation.
  • Compliance is non-negotiable: When participating in SARA, institutions agree to abide by conditions of approval and provisional approval, if necessary, including any necessary limits on its distance learning enrollments, which means if they slip in adherence to policies, they are on notice and may eventually have to leave SARA participation.
SARA Member States: How Does NC-SARA Help Support and Strengthen State Higher Education Oversight?

States and territories ultimately have responsibility for conducting oversight over higher education institutions and distance learning programs offered by colleges and universities. This is rooted in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which designates this authority to the states. In addition, while accreditors determine whether their member institutions meet their standards, it is states that determine which degree programs or courses can be offered.

However, to augment the work underway to support program quality at the state level, NC-SARA has included an additional requirement that our member states must have policies in place to protect students.

SARA member states are expected, per NC-SARA policy, to investigate a variety of consumer protection issues, including:

  • Truthfulness of recruitment and marketing materials;
  • Accuracy of job placement data;
  • Accuracy of information about tuition, fees and financial aid;
  • Complete and accurate admission requirements for courses and programs;
  • Accuracy of information about the institution’s accreditation and/or any programmatic or specialized accreditation held by the institution’s programs; and
  • Accuracy of information about whether course work meets any relevant Professional Licensing requirements or the requirements of specialized accrediting agencies.
What does NC-SARA do with student complaints?

At NC-SARA, we recognize that we play an important oversight role to ensure institutions and states are taking appropriate steps to protect students and assure program quality. To that end, NC-SARA takes students’ complaints seriously.

Unlike other higher education membership organizations, NC-SARA publishes a list of complaints filed against its participating institutions on its website in an effort to encourage enhanced transparency and accountability. Click here to learn more about student complaints.

We always welcome feedback from consumer advocacy groups and other higher education stakeholders on how we can continue to enhance our policies to better serve institutions, states, and – most importantly – students nationwide. To share your thoughts, please send an email to info@nc-sara.org.