Nov 282011

By Teri Walker–

New federal requirements for colleges related to online courses may cause Northland Pioneer College (NPC) to have to change its approach to offering courses outside of Arizona.

The Department of Education handed down a policy to higher education institutions earlier this year stating colleges must secure individual authorizations from every state where students access online courses from their institution.

The policy resulted in NPC President Dr. Jeanne Swarthout sending letters to every state in the union this summer, asking what each state’s requirements were for allowing a college to offer classes to its residents.

“The individual state responses varied widely, from having no policy in place to requiring up to $5,000 for the initial agreement, with the potential for annual reauthorization fees,” said Swarthout.

For NPC, the process is a burdensome one, considering there are many states where NPC serves only one student during any given semester. For instance, during the spring 2011 semester, the states of Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming each had only one individual taking an NPC course online. In total, 104 students from 35 states outside of Arizona took online courses from NPC last spring.

Swarthout said almost without exception those students accessing NPC from out of state are taking classes to round out their certifications to be able to teach in Arizona. Courses most sought include Arizona and U.S. Constitution, and English as a second language (ESL).

“Most of the states have only ‘onesie-twosies’, and the process we’d have to go through to serve just those few students is really intensive,” said Swarthout. “We would have 49 or 50 agreements, all of which are different.”

Swarthout said she’s not sure where the college will go from here. For one thing, she said the Department of Education is embroiled in legal issues related to the new directive, with a Washington D.C. court recently ruling the requirement is illegal.

Swarthout is compiling the state-by-state requirements, so the college can determine how it will proceed with its online offerings.

The uncertainty does not stretch to all online course offerings; those classes accessed by students within Arizona are not affected by the Department of Education requirement.

Swarthout said she is most concerned with continuing service to four states that consistently have students enrolling through NPC: California, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.

Of those, New Mexico is her highest priority, as many students from the Navajo Nation, a major population targeted and served by NPC, live just over the state line in New Mexico.

While the issue is concerning, the fact that NPC mostly serves in-state students makes it less of an issue than it is for regional colleges such as University of Phoenix or Rio Salado, which conduct extensive outreach to students in multiple states.

“Our mission is really focused on our two counties (Navajo and Apache),” said Swarthout. “We don’t market across state lines.”

Still, knowing there are students out there who wish to access NPC’s online courses, Swarthout hopes to come to a solution that allows the college to provide the greatest service without creating an undue burden, both financially and in terms of workload, on the institution. Additionally, the online courses do equate to revenue and enrollment numbers for the college, so some loss would be felt if the out-of-state services were discontinued.

Swarthout is concerned with keeping the college in compliance with the Department of Education policy, as long as it is deemed lawful, because noncompliance can threaten NPC’s access to Pell grants and other federal funds.

At this time, the college’s only mandate is to gather the requirements from states, not to begin crafting agreements.

“Right now, we’re just watching it really carefully,” concluded Swarthout.