July 26, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Let's Focus on Access, Cost and Speed to Improve Higher Education | Commentary

In the lexicon of acronyms, there is one that stands apart as not only wise, but politically savvy. KISS, which stands for “Keep it simple, Simon,” is credited as a U.S. Navy design principle in the 1960s. KISS is based on the principle that most systems work best if they are kept simple — common sense, but critical.

Variants of KISS have evolved over time but the definition is the same: avoid unnecessary complexity.

When it comes to higher education policy, this seems to be easier said than done.

As Congress considers its position on a variety of education-related issues, including the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, leadership must be mindful of the fact that the vast majority of institutions across the country want to resolve existing challenges posed by increasing regulation without adding to the cost and complexity of providing services to students. These stakeholders are begging for our friend KISS.

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, called NC-SARA or SARA for short, is an excellent example of how this can work at the state level. SARA streamlines the process of regulatory compliance for state authorization for online higher education programs and, most important, benefits students nationwide.

It was specifically designed to address the federal demand that institutions demonstrate compliance with state law in order to participate in federal student financial aid programs.

Under SARA, when an institution is approved to participate by its home state that is a participant in the reciprocity agreement, other participating states will accept the home state’s action, thereby eliminating the need for the institution to replicate the authorization process in multiple SARA jurisdictions.

Fifty-four states and U.S. territories, including Guam and Puerto Rico, are eligible to participate in this “simplified” process through affiliation with one of the four regional compacts (New England Board of Higher Education, Southern Regional Education Board , Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or the Midwestern Higher Education Compact). And, the idea is catching on as states and their academic institutions realize that the alternative to SARA is compliance with a complex and costly patchwork of individual state rules and regulations. The increasing cost of registering every year in multiple states alone makes SARA a no-brainer.

The benefits of implementing the one-time SARA process range from reduced cost to the academic institutions, as well as maintaining access to federal financial aid programs for students. Within higher education, the benefits and advantages offered by SARA have gained increasing recognition by such organizations as the American Council on Education, the Association of Public and Land-grant Institutions, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and the Council of State Governments, among others.

In addition, the Lumina Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working to help the nation reach President Obama’s “big goal” of 60 percent of those in the workforce holding some form of degree by 2015, and have also provided support for the development of the SARA model as a means to enhance access by reducing regulatory barriers to online and distance learning.

John F. Ebersole is the president of Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y.

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