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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I Wish My Job Didn’t Exist

Countless labor hours are wasted at universities handling regulatory bloat

I love working for Norwich University, but I wish my job did not exist.  

When I tell folks this, I always get a confused look or a laugh. I follow up by explaining that I’m part of the administrative bloat that universities have taken on to ensure we’re dotting all the “I’s” and crossing all the “T’s” of state and federal regulations. 

I was not hired to teach students, perform research or help our students become better leaders. But without my work, many of our students would not be able to enroll in our university. 

My work entails keeping Norwich out of trouble with many regulations, such as the Clery Act, FERPA, and Title IX, but I’d like to focus on perhaps the most maddening set of regulations—those pertaining to online education.

One of Norwich University’s colleges is dedicated to online students. In order to offer our programs to students in states other than Vermont, we must get those states’ approval. This is referred to as “state authorization.” Traditionally, these rules were applied to institutions that wished to open a traditional brick-and-mortar campus.  

That changed a few years back when the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) told states that their rules must apply to online programs. DOE also told institutions that it could take away their right to issue federal financial aid to students if they didn’t follow state authorization rules. 

Because Norwich has online students and couldn’t operate without federal funds, it committed to following the rules of every state. At first, compliance fell to another administrator who was quickly overwhelmed with the work required. That’s when I was hired. 

I soon learned that state authorization rules were at best duplicative and at worst protectionist in that they kept “outside” universities from offering programs to their residents. 

Complying with all those rules is costly. Over the last four years, Norwich has spent over $500,000, a figure that includes my salary, fees paid to states, surety bonds, agent permits, registered agents, and travel costs. Not one cent had any educational value.

A few states have taken a reasonable approach to regulating online education. An example is Wyoming. Wyoming requires two things before we can offer our programs to its residents: we must be regionally accredited and pay a $100 fee. 

We go through an extensive accreditation process by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Instead of making us provide that same information, Wyoming trusts the accreditors’ opinion that we are a legitimate university and it is safe for its residents to enroll in our programs. Charging $100 fee to process our paperwork and keep track of it seems reasonable. 

Most states, however, take a different approach.

Many state that if a university has a “physical presence” in a state, the institution must go through an extensive authorization process and pay a fee. What constitutes a “physical presence” varies from state to state. A normal person would think that means of having a classroom where students and professors actually meet, but it can mean as little as having a billboard, computer server, phone number, a part-time faculty member or staff member, recruiting in that state, or offering students an internship in the state. 

If you don’t do any of those activities most states grant you an exemption, but going even slightly over the line is very costly. We’re careful to keep our exemptions in states that require us to track our activities and not inadvertently gain a “physical presence.” 

For example, in Massachusetts we do not have to go through its full authorization process because we don’t operate in that state. If we do nothing besides have online students who take 100% of their courses in their homes and have no other connections in the state, we are all set. But if we do anything more, we’d be forced to submit many documents and pay a fee of approximately $40,000. 

As a result, we have had to make some tough choices. Here’s one instance.

We had an excellent employee who served as a service advisor for online students. She was a point-of-contact for online students in one of our programs and did all her work online and over the phone. She wanted to work from home and move across the border from Vermont to Massachusetts to be closer to her grandchildren. I asked the regulators in Massachusetts about that and was informed that doing this would cost us our exemption because we’d have a “physical presence” in the state. We would have to pay the $40,000 to get authorization. 

Unfortunately for our employee and the students who loved her, we told her she wouldn’t be able to keep her job when she moved. Norwich lost a great employee. 

In Arkansas, we choose to go through the full authorization process several years ago. Arkansas required a notification fee, a fee per program, a surety bond, and a thick binder representing all details of our institution. This was all expected. 

What surprised us was that we had to physically attend the Arkansas Board of Education meeting where they would officially vote to allow our programs. This followed a conference call where a regulator had asked us questions and given us the initial thumbs-up. 

At that time, we were only allowed to submit a small number of programs at a time, so I made four trips to Arkansas to attend board meetings. To my knowledge, no school attending these meeting has ever been asked a single question. All of that was a pure waste of my time and the school’s money.

Like Arkansas, Alabama requires fees, surety bonds and a thick binder full of every detail about our institution. Alabama also requires that if we have admissions folks who recruit Alabama students, they must have a permit, pay a fee, fill out a form, and submit a passport style photo. Obtaining the permits costs $850 each and several hours of my time. Fortunately, Alabama hasn’t enforced its law requiring these staff members to carry their permit card with them at all times, even while speaking with Alabama residents over the phone. 

What worries me about Alabama is the penalty for not following its authorization rules. Alabama code provides that violators “shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500) or a term of imprisonment not to exceed six months, or both. Each day’s violation of this chapter shall constitute a separate offense.” I doubt Alabama would send our president or me to jail, but I don’t want to find out.

North Carolina is in the same camp as Arkansas and Alabama. Norwich is a senior military college and we offer degree completion programs designed for members of the military. We have many students who are stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. We are allowed to meet with our students on base, but we would violate state rules if we met with any student off base. 

We have had applications for administrative positions from residents of North Carolina. We would love to have them on our staff so they could meet face-to-face with our students in the state. But if we did, we’d lose our exemption and have to pay approximately $37,000. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to work for Norwich University but hope that someday colleges won’t need to hire people like me dedicated to nothing but regulatory compliance.

Nick Cooper is an attorney for Norwich University spending a majority of his time on regulatory and administrative law. He contributes commentaries to the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy where this article first appeared

  • Nick Cooper is an attorney for Norwich University spending a majority of his time on regulatory and administrative law.