To regular readers of this blog, it will come as no surprise that public colleges and universities are operating across international borders—the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is in Singapore and Texas A&M operates in Qatar. Less known perhaps, is that some public institutions in the United States have campuses in other states. In other words, you can get a degree from Central Michigan University on a campus in Atlanta.
While the movement across state borders may seem like a domestic issue, it does provide a lab for understanding how governments may think about regulating cross-border higher education. In the United States, it seems almost counterintuitive that any state-level public bureaucracy would establish offices specifically to provide services to the citizens of another state. The Illinois Department of Transportation does not repair roads in North Dakota, nor does the Division of Criminal Justice Services in New York operate jails in Missouri. Yet public higher-education institutions regularly operate outside of their home states.
We have identified more than 30 public colleges and universities that offered credit-bearing courses (with varying levels of a physical presence) in at least 219 physical locations in America outside of their home states. And given the uncertain regulation and oversight in this arena, there may be many more nonregistered locations operating throughout the country.
Why institutions pursue such endeavors, even in a time of growing acceptance of distance learning, is not entirely clear. For some, such as Troy University in Alabama and Central Michigan University, it appears to have started decades ago by serving military personnel in multiple states and those locations eventually transformed to serve nonmilitary personnel. Some institutions have home campuses in very rural locations where it is difficult to attract students and opt to open locations in highly populated areas. Still others have opened shop in more rural locations (mostly in the Western states) to offer specific degrees that are in high demand, but low supply, in the region. Most don’t stray far—a location across the border in the next state over is common—but a few have ranged across the country.
The concept of public colleges and universities exporting their activities to other states has not escaped the attention of state regulators. Many states have policies directed generally toward out-of-state activities of their own institutions. And typically, when moving across state borders, the public institution of one state is expected to follow the same requirements as a private college seeking to open a campus within the state.
All states except Louisiana, Mississippi, and Wyoming explicitly regulate the expansion of their public institutions; however, only 15 states actually regulate the movement of them into out-of-state territories. On the other hand, all states regulate the development of new campuses within their borders, with 42 explicitly acknowledging that branch campuses of out-of-state institutions are a possibility. Interestingly, while the regulations focus on issues of mandating administrative requirements, guarding against unnecessary requirements, and ensuring comparable curricular offerings, few states actually stipulate quality indicators for educational institutions being imported from other states. Most importing states expect that public cross-border institutions meet the standards of an approved accrediting body. However, an initial review of cross-border locations included in our database suggests that some entities are opened without appropriate approval of the regional accreditation bodies. Since then, however, we’ve seen accreditors tightening up on this. Nevertheless, locations outside of the home state may fall through the cracks of what quality assurance does exist. For example, North Carolina Central University, a public college, had to repay $1.1-million to the federal government for using federal funds at an unaccredited and unapproved campus it was running at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in suburban Atlanta. The campus operated for four years, enrolling 126 students, and awarding bachelor degrees to 25 of them before being caught by the regulatory mechanisms.
Although regulations do exist, it seems that regulatory constraints on expansion within a state may make it easier to expand out of state. States have an interest, honed through decades of experience with coordinating boards and centralized governance models, in developing efficient public higher-education systems. Typical models distinguish and delimit institutions both by level of service (i.e., two-year, four-year, and graduate) and by geography. Expansion within the state must comply with master plans and recognize political barriers to encroaching on another’s territory. The relative invisibility of out-of-state activity to in-state competitors opens up the possibility of operating across the country with less regulatory resistance than offering a new program in the next town. And, because cross-border activity is geographically removed from standard oversight structures, it can fly under the radar of regulators more attuned to in-state activity.
It’s like a variant on the old saying: Out of state, out of mind.
What does this mean for international higher education? First of all, it emphasizes that even within a relatively robust regulatory framework such as what is found in the United States, it is not that difficult to avoid regulatory attention. It also demonstrates that host countries probably cannot rely on home-country oversight of multinational universities—regulations are more concerned with what happens within borders than without. Thus, regulations in the receiving country remain essential even when the branch is sponsored by a presumably legitimate foreign provider. Finally, because government officials have a strong local interest in the integrity of the higher education within their borders, our work suggests the difficulty of setting up a regulatory framework that balances the needs and expectations of policy makers against those who lead the institutions that set up across political borders.
What other lessons for international education can be learned from domestic cross-border activities?