#38: Who or What is NC-SARA?


It’s time for Wired Ivy Office Hours!  A quick but deep dive into an online higher ed term or concept to cultivate effective communication and weed out confusion.


KIERAN  00:15 

My co-host, Dan Marcucci, and I have been working on a multi-episode series about navigating the U.S. market for contract and full-time positions in the virtual classroom – that’s a little teaser of what’s to come later this season.  As we research this topic, though, we keep coming across a term that seems perfect for a first Office Hours explainer: NC-SARA approved institutions.

Now, in case you’re wondering, NC-SARA isn’t the academic equivalent of Angie’s List…  the brainchild of some random entrepreneur based in North Carolina. No, it’s an acronym. A shorthand way to reference the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements.  

So that clears up what NC-SARA stands for… sort of.

Solving the riddle of why NC-SARA exists in the first place, and what role it plays in online education, will take a bit longer. But never fear! I’ll have you up to speed and back on the information superhighway in no time at all.

You see, prior to 2014, an academic institution in, say, Georgia, couldn’t legally let students living in, oh, I don’t know, Oregon, have access to its online courses unless Oregon and Georgia had a signed reciprocity agreement.  The same limitation applied to students in any other state who wanted to take online courses from that Georgia institution… unless Georgia had reciprocity agreements with each of those students’ home state or US territory.

At this point, any American who took a US government class in high school or as an undergrad will surely be wondering, “How this can be so? Doesn’t the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution give federal legislators the power to regulate commerce between the states, not state entities? And isn’t this interpretation part of settled case law?”

It’s true, the Commerce Clause has been used to ban discrimination based on race, gender, and religion… and yet, to this day, universities discriminate against non-resident students by charging a higher out-of-state tuition, and at some institutions, preferencing in-state students in acceptance decisions.  

Various legal scholars have opined that Congress probably does have the right to disallow this practice, but just hasn’t done so. Possibly, this is because it would be politically unpopular to, in effect, require the taxpayers who support their state’s public universities to subsidize the education of students who reside, and pay taxes, in some other state.

Anyway, for a long time this reciprocity requirement wasn’t much of a thorn in the side of traditional universities because: 1) online course and program offerings weren’t all that common; 2) when offered they weren’t a source of profit; and 3) because online programs weren’t considered central to the institutions’ missions.  As such, not much time was spent developing and marketing online offerings, or negotiating reciprocity agreements with other states. 

That began to change in the 1990s, when for-profits like University of Phoenix started to grow the market for distance degrees. They recognized that online delivery was a logical next step in their drive to expand the audience for higher education by improving accessibility. Moreover, distance audiences offered a means for increasing enrollment without commensurate increases in facilities costs, which meant serving online students increased profit margins. 

For-profits were successful enough using this strategy that nonprofits started to take notice and, frankly, get a little nervous. However, these same public institutions didn’t want to cannibalize their in-state market for campus-based students, yet they couldn’t compete for students in other states without going through a costly and lengthy case-by-case approval process for their classes and degree programs, and negotiating separate reciprocity agreements with all the other states. 

So starting in 2009, higher education institutions, partnering with the Lumina Foundation, the Council of State Governments, state regulators, education leaders, accreditors, and the US Department of Education, set out to map a path toward simplifying the reciprocity process.  

A few years later the four regional higher education compacts joined to help with organizing efforts, and in December of 2013, NC-SARA was formally established, with funding support from Lumina. State memberships were offered the following year, and in 2019 the SARA Policy Manual became the official policy document.

Today, NC-SARA is a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with more than 2,200 institutions in 49 member states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.  According to their website, NC-SARA “helps expand students’ access to educational opportunities and ensure more efficient, consistent, and effective regulation of distance education programs.”  

And, thanks to NC-SARA, it’s now so common for online higher education programs to accept students from other states that you probably spend way more time thinking about how you need to design your courses to serve students in multiple time zones than you’ve ever given to considering whether any legal barriers had to be cleared so you could to welcome these students into your virtual classroom. 

That’s it for this Episode of Wired Ivy Office Hours.  We’ll include links to the reference materials used to create this Explainer on the show notes page at wiredivy.org.

Thanks to NC-SARA, online educators now spend more time designing courses to serve students in multiple time zones than to the legal barriers that used to keep those students out their virtual classrooms. #highered #virtualclassroom


KIERAN  05:24 

Let’s hear what you have to say!  Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions. You can leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy, or send us an email to kieran@wiredivy.org —  Kieran is spelled K-I-E-R-A-N, or Dan@wiredivy.org  —  Dan is spelled D-A-N.

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Wired Ivy co-host Kieran Lindsey is a former online graduate student, occasional online educator, and current Program Director for Virginia Tech’s Online Master of Natural Resources. The Online MNR has  has evolved from in-person instruction to online, and under her guidance has grown to be the university’s 2nd largest virtually delivered graduate degree.  Kieran serves as a special consultant to VT’s Graduate School Dean on virtual programming for non-traditional student audiences, and has provided ad hoc advising on the development and delivery of online programming to colleagues at various institutions.  Kieran is also an urban wildlife biologist (Texas A&M – BS, MS, PhD), writer, blogger, regional Emmy Award recipient (documentary feature), and now a podcaster, too, as well as personal assistant to a ferociously cute wire fox terrier named Dashiell Riprock (aka Dash).


We welcome your questions, feedback, and suggestions for future episodes. Join our Wired Ivy LinkedIn Group, tweet us @wiredivy,  or look for the bright blue Talk to Wired Ivy tab on the right side of this screen to leave us a voice message!

Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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