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If your school teaches online, you must register in every state where your students live

By Sebastian Mahfood, O.P.

If you’re the institutional liaison with your state office of higher education, or with the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), or with a regional accrediting agency, you know that there’s a deadline approaching: July 1, 2014.

If you have any kind of online presence that draws students from across state lines — and at least 112 ATS schools do! — then you should be prepared for it. (Not sure if your school has a comprehensive online degree program? Check the list at

The July 1 deadline refers to the State Authorization Requirement (otherwise known as 34 CFR §600.9(c)), which requires all institutions to be authorized by the state offices of higher education in all states where their students live. Though the federal law was vacated on June 5, 2012, the state regulations requiring authorization remain active. For this reason, institutions must “comply with any applicable state approval or licensure requirements in each state in which it ‘operates’ and be approved by that state by name,” according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s technology division, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET). (For details, see

According to WCET, the United States Department of Education plans to enforce the regulation on July 1, 2014.

Important for boards to know
This news is important for the governing boards of theological colleges and seminaries because it directly affects an institution’s ability to keep its virtual doors open for business. A wise board will ask the school’s president right now whether the school will meet the federal deadline on July 1. If not, plans should be made to come into compliance with the new requirements immediately.

Compliance is administratively simple, but it requires some investment in time. Because different states have different triggers, the first step in this process is for a school to develop a policy for determining whether its practices trigger a need for state authorization in any given state. For example, a seminary having a physical presence in a state is a common trigger, but in 16 states, authorization may be required even for schools with no physical presence.

Each seminary that offers online courses should develop a policy and plan — if the triggers for any particular state are pulled, then the steps for complying with that state’s authorization requirements should be implemented without delay.

WCET provides some advice on how do this (see, but the most important advice is to communicate with applicable state regulators via email and then follow up with those regulators via phone if a response is not received in a reasonable period (about two weeks). In cases where no state trigger is tripped, schools should maintain in their files the documentation showing that they do not trip the trigger for those states.

For the email message that will be sent to each applicable state office of higher education, the school should create a standard format that includes the following elements:



  • The type of institution (e.g., not-for-profit).
  • The number of students served is (provide total number of students).
  • The number of students who reside in the state where authorization is being requested (provide total number of students who live in that state).
  • The types of programs offered (list all degree programs offered, both on-campus and online).
  • The institution’s status on common physical presence triggers:
    • Instruction in the state (e.g., “none — all instruction is done online”).
    • Recruiting in the state (e.g., “none — all recruiting is done via word of mouth or through national or web-based media advertising”).
    • Property in the state (e.g., “none — all institutional property remains in institution’s home state, and institutional data is stored in the cloud”).
    • Employment in the state (e.g., “faculty members within Distance Learning programs are home-based in a number of states, namely [list states]”).
    • Third-party contracts in the state (e.g., “none involving vendors in your state”).
    • Advertising in the state (e.g., “national media and the Internet; no advertising is done within local papers in your state”).
  • The institutional accreditation liaison officer’s complete contact information is [name, physical address, email address, phone].

Some penalties for non-compliance exist, as described by WCET (see In most cases, the first penalty is a cease-and-desist order and possibly a fine for operating without authorization. Because state agencies are reasonable, any given state office of higher education will likely first ask an institution operating within its borders to simply take the steps to become authorized and may also ask institutions to stop serving students who reside in their state until the institution has taken those steps.

Federally, the risk to the institution may be a loss of Title IV funding and the requirement to “reimburse federal financial aid funds for students in the noncompliant states.” WCET provides an important caveat here: “The U.S. DOE still requires institutions to notify students on where the institution is authorized and on where a student can file a complaint.”

An important legal note: If a student is not notified in advance that the school has not been authorized to operate in the student’s home state, it’s possible for that student to file suit against the noncompliant school. Finally, because accreditation is based, in part, on an institution’s meeting all state and federal laws, noncompliant institutions could find their accreditation in jeopardy.

Some help for schools is on the way. A State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) promises to simplify the process of state authorization (see for details on how institutions might benefit from this service). But while the authorization service is being set up, institutions should plan to work individually with each state office of higher education, and they should email this article to their accreditation liaison officer immediately after reading this.

About the author: Sebastian Mahfood, O.P., a lay member of the Dominican Order, is vice president of administration and associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. He is also director of the Catholic Distance Learning Network in Arlington, Virginia, and serves on the board of trustees of Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

This article will appear in the Summer 2014 issue of In Trust magazine.

List of State Offices of Higher Education and Contact Persons

Alabama Commission on Higher Education
Elizabeth C. French
Alabama Commission on Higher Education
Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Planning

Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education
Teri Stanfill
Executive Director
Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education

Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education
Laura N. Metune
Bureau Chief
Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education

Colorado Commission on Higher Education
Heather DeLange
Degree Authorization Act Officer
Colorado Department of Higher Education

Education Licensure Commission
Robin Y. Jenkins
Executive Director
DC Education Licensure Commission

Commission for Independent Education
Sam Ferguson
Executive Director
Commission for Independent Education

Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission
Carl G. Camann, Ph.D.
Deputy Director
Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission

Idaho State Board of Education
Harvey W. Lyter III, MBA
State Coordinator for Private Colleges & Proprietary Schools
Office of the State Board of Education

Illinois Board of Higher Education
Dan Cullen, Interim Director
Deputy Director for Academic Affairs and Student Success
Illinois Board of Higher Education

Indiana Commission on Proprietary Education (ICOPE)
Ross Miller
Indiana Commission on Proprietary Education

Iowa College Student Aid Commission
Carolyn Small
Postsecondary Registration Administrator
Iowa College Student Aid Commission

Kansas Board of Regents
Jacqueline Johnson
Director of Private Postsecondary and Out-of-State Education
Kansas Board of Regents

Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education
Sarah Levy, J.D.
Director of Postsecondary Licensing
Council on Postsecondary Education
502.573.1555, ext. 350

Academic Degree-Granting Institutions:
Larry Tremblay
Interim Deputy Commissioner for Academic and Student Affairs
Louisiana Board of Regents

Maine Department of Education, Office of Higher Education
Harry W. Osgood
Higher Education Specialist
Maine Department of Education
Augusta, Maine 04333

Maryland Higher Education Commission
Sue A. Blanshan
Director of Academic Affairs
Maryland Higher Education Commission
410-260-4533, 410-767-3268

Massachusetts Board of Higher Education
Shelley Tinkham, Ph.D.
Assistant Commissioner for Academic, K-16 and Veterans Policy
Massachusetts Department of Higher Education

Michael Beamish
Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs
Bureau of Commercial Services
Licensing Division

Minnesota Office of Higher Education
George R. Roedler, Jr., JD
Manager, Institutional Registration & Licensing
Minnesota Office of Higher Education

Missouri Department of Higher Education
Leroy Wade
Assistant Commissioner
Missouri Department of Higher Education

Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education
Kathleen Fimple
Academic Programs Officer
Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education

New Jersey Commission on Higher Education
Iris Duffield
Administrative Analyst
New Jersey Commission on Higher Education

New Mexico Higher Education Department
Stephanie A. Ellis
Private & Proprietary Schools Administrator
New Mexico Higher Education Department

New York State Department of Education, Office of College and University Evaluation
Ellen Zunon
Office of College and University Evaluation
New York State Department of Education

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors
Maggie Ryan
Assistant Director of Licensure and Workforce Studies
The University of North Carolina General Administration

North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education
Debra Huber
Educational Equity, Private Postsecondary Institutions, and Special Populations
North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education

Ohio Board of Regents
Shane DeGarmo
Director, Program Approval
The Ohio Board of Regents

Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education
Gina M. Wekke
Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education
(405) 234-4300

Oregon Office of Degree Authorization
Jennifer Diallo
Academic Program Evaluator
Office of Degree Authorization

Pennsylvania Department of Education
Michael Westover
Bureau Director
Bureau of Postsecondary and Adult Education
Pennsylvania Department of Education

Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education
Deanna Velletri
Rhode Island Office of Higher Education
Academic and Student Affairs

Tennessee Higher Education Commission
Betty Dandridge-Johnson
Assistant Director of Regulatory Affairs for DPSA
Division of Postsecondary School Authorization (DPSA)
Tennessee Higher Education Commission

Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board
Van Davis
Special Projects Director
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board

Utah Division of Consumer Protection
Marla Winegar
Utah Division of Consumer Protection

Vermont State Board of Education
Cathy Hilgendorf
Postsecondary Approval Coordinator
Vermont Department of Education

State Council for Higher Education in Virginia
Linda H. Woodley
Director, Private & Out-of-State Postsecondary Education
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
Sandra Freeman

Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board
Karen Oelschlager
Program Associate/Degree Authorization
Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board

West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission
Mark Stotler
Assistant Director of Academic Affairs
West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission

Wyoming Department of Education
Elaine Marces
Interim Private School Program Manager
Wyoming Department of Education

Puerto Rico Council on Education
Judith Torres, PhD
Director, Licensing and Accreditation Division
Puerto Rico Council on Education
Carmen Berrios, Executive Director

Image credit: Matt Forster



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