Protecting Students and Demanding Quality

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

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) was established to help expand students’ access to educational opportunities and ensure more efficient, consistent, and effective regulation of distance learning programs.

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. To do so, SARA participating institutions must meet certain requirements – many of which are focused on ensuring appropriate consumer protections for students.

Key NC-SARA RA Student Consumer Protections include:

  • All SARA institutions must be accredited. Recognizing that accreditation provides an important layer of accountability and quality assurance, only degree-granting institutions accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agencies are permitted to apply to join SARA. It is important to note that all states do not require accreditation for degree-granting institutions to operate, but those institutions would not be eligible to join SARA.
  • SARA institutions must have U.S. oversight. SARA institutions must be chartered or licensed by, and physically located in, a U.S state or territory. This ensures that genuine evaluation and oversight by a U.S. entity can take place.
  • SARA Institutions must demonstrate healthy finances. Private institutions must prove their financial stability by maintaining a U.S. Department of Education financial responsibility score of 1.5 or higher (institutions may be provisionally approved with a score between 1.0 and 1.5).
  • Required accountability for third-party providers. Institutions occasionally partner with third-party providers to help support the creation of distance learning programs. All SARA-participating institutions who utilize third-party providers must take full responsibility for the quality of their work.
  • SARA institutions must adhere to high standards. To participate in SARA, colleges and universities must 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.
  • Upholding 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. Additionally, 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.
  • Student complaints are taken seriously. Students are expected to first try to resolve complaints using the processes in place at their institutions. If they cannot be satisfactorily resolved, SARA allows students to file complaints where the educational content originates. 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.
  • Transparency around professional licensure. All SARA participating institutions are required to notify students whether their programs meet educational standards for professional licensure in students’ states.
  • 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.

Looking Forward: Maintaining NC-SARA's Commitment to Students

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. Over the last six years, our policies and protocols have evolved as we collaborate with states and participating institutions to further refine what it means to support students who are pursuing distance education.

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.