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Bill opens gates to out-of-state online courses

You cannot be online for more than a few minutes before college ads will pop up on your screen. Click on them, and you might find they reduce or even disappear when you enter your zipcode.

There are a few states that partially have held back the flood of "cheap" online college courses. Kansas has been one of those states.

But House Bill 2544, approved last month, now will move to the Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee. This bill opens the floodgates to every online course and program "accredited" in other states that also have joined the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, or SARA.

Just as the National Governors Association and the CCSSO have worked to give away state curricular oversight and jurisdiction of K-12 education to a uniform nationwide common core, this act supported by the Kansas Board of Regents abdicates state decision-making and automatically will admit online programs.

SARA is touted as offering " ... a process to make state authorization more efficient, more uniform in regard to necessary and reasonable standards of practice that could span states, and more effective in dealing with quality and integrity issues that have arisen in online/distance education offerings. It also aims to be less costly and less complex than the current system for both states and institutions."

The Kansas Board of Regents has been approving out-of-state online courses and programs at a steady clip for the past decade -- about as fast as they flow in. The KBOR operates under the illusion it has little choice but to approve online programs if they are approved in some other state. But the paperwork and monthly procedures kept this flow limited to a steady stream -- a half-hearted "finger in the dike." But passage of this bill will automate the process. It opens the floodgates to online operations across the United States.

What about the alleged advantages of being "more efficient, more uniform?" That precisely is why every rust bucket that sails the seas is registered in Panama. It provides the lowest common denominator in inspection for the high seas. It has the lowest tax rate, too.

What about the claim SARA establishes "necessary and reasonable standards of practice" to deal with "quality and integrity issues?"

Where is the evidence accreditation can detect the superior programs from the diploma mills? Most K-12 superintendents know student teachers vary widely in competency from different Kansas colleges. Yet every Kansas teacher college is NCATE-accredited. That accreditation is useless.

Just a few years ago, the Inspector General's Office of the USDE issued an alert and criticized the Higher Learning Commission, an accreditor of more than 1,000 U.S. institutions for its decision to accredit the for-profit American InterContinental University. That alert "calls into question" this main accreditor's ability to verify quality education, in specific, a five-week course for nine credit hours.

Most online operations are for-profit. In the May 3, 2013, Chronicle of Higher Education, a doctoral study at the University of Washington used data from the national Longitudinal Survey of Youth that tracks nearly 9,000 teenagers each year since 1997 and controlled for background traits. The wages of graduates of for-profit colleges "were more than 20 percent lower than the wages of those who attended two-year programs at public colleges." An additional survey commissioned by the Chronicle of Higher Education of employers who hire graduates with baccalaureate degrees found "employers were least likely to hire graduates of online colleges. For-profit colleges scored the next lowest."

The workplace has good reasons to question the quality of many online courses and programs. A growing number of graduate programs no longer are accepting transfer credit from so-called online science "labs" and performance arts.

In Kansas, the gatekeeper on course and program quality is the Board of Regents.

House Bill 2544 allows them to abdicate that responsibility. And out-of-state online courses and programs will not be subject to the rigorous program review of regent's schools.

That leaves the Kansas Senate as our last line of defense to preserve the value of a bona fide degree, and defeat this bill.

John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.