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Experts urge reduced barriers to online college education

April 11, 2013|By Larry Gordon
  • Former U.S. Education secretary Richard Riley heads a panel that advocates making it easier for online postsecondary education classes to be offered across state lines.
Former U.S. Education secretary Richard Riley heads a panel that advocates… (Greg Gibson / Associated…)

To make it easier for students to earn college credits in online courses, government regulation of such classes should be streamlined across state boundaries and better consumer protection rules enacted, a national commission said Thursday.

Rules and fees allowing online courses to operate for academic credit in various states sometimes conflict with each other and are unnecessarily restricting the potential growth of online learning, according to the group headed by former U.S. secretary of Education Richard Riley.

Its report calls for a reciprocity system under which states adopt a set of national minimum operating standards and then each state would monitor the practices of the colleges or companies that have a real physical presence -- not just having Internet-based students -- within the state.

Currently online education faces “a checkerboard of regulations” around the country that does not recognize how fluid the Internet makes education, said Peter McPherson, who is president of the Assn. of Public and Land-grant Universities and was one of movers behind the report.  Such conflicting rules are “a constraint upon further rapid expansion” of online education. 

Much work and negotiation remains for states and regional accrediting agencies to voluntarily adopt the streamlining proposed by Riley panel, which is formally called the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education.  And officials say these rules do not control whether individual colleges would allow students to earn degree credit from other institutions or companies.

The commission found that it can cost a state university more than $5 million in state fees, bonds and other costs to comply with regulations across the country.  Eliminating some of those fees could help keep tuition costs down, officials said. Plus, the panel said basic national rules should strengthen protections against fraud and misrepresentation, according to Riley, who served in former President Bill Clinton’s cabinet and was governor of South Carolina. 

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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