NC-SARA and Online Nurse Practitioner Programs: What to Know

Standardizing education to ensure a minimum level of quality has been a challenge as the number of institutions offering higher education increases. Over the past decade there have been institutions in the news for scamming students with programs that provide little value and saddled them with costly loans. Thankfully, there are several organizations, public and nonprofit, established to help regulate higher education.

Institutions of higher education are regulated by the Department of Education for numerous reasons. First, it provides some level of assurance to students that their program is legitimate. It also ensures that the program adheres to a standard of education in order to be eligible for federal student loan dollars.

Below the Department of Education is each state’s board of higher education. These boards regulate private and public universities and colleges that do business within their state. Requirements for institutions vary from state to state based on the legislation and laws of that state.

There are numerous accrediting organizations at the regional and national level that also endeavor to standardize education. Accrediting bodies are overseen by the Department of Education and the Commission for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

However, none of these addressed standardizing distance-based education provided across state lines, which is why the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (NC-SARA) was created.

NC-SARA History

With the rise of online education, students began attending school in states where they do not live. Institutions in other states were providing education in states in which they were not permitted to operate. In order to provide distance education, an institution would have to reach out to a students state’s education board and obtain permission to provide education in that state. They would have to ensure they met the state requirements and submit annual reports. It was a costly and time consuming process.

To tackle this problem, regional organizations worked to standardize online education standards within their member states. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Midwestern Higher Education Compact, New England Board of Higher Education, and Southern Regional Education Board all endeavored to find a solution. In 2013, thanks to a grant from the Lumina Foundation, NC-SARA was founded. Currently, 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are NC-SARA members.

These standardized reciprocity agreements benefit students and institutions alike. Students have access to a wider variety of educational programs and institutions are able to offer their programs all over the country. Currently, California is the only state not participating in NC-SARA. Critics in the state cite concerns that NC-SARA does not have enough consumer protections in place for it to be a program the state should adopt.

Once states have joined NC-SARA, institutions apply to their relevant regional education compact. To be eligible, institutions must hold accreditation by an accrediting body recognized by the Department of Education and whose accreditation includes distance education.

Considerations for Online NP Students

Students who are pursuing degrees that have state governing boards, such as education, nursing, and psychology, must ensure that the program they are pursuing meets their state’s board licensing requirements. These requirements can vary from other educational standards, including NC-SARA status.

Simply put, a state’s NC-SARA status does not mean that the program will meet a student’s state of residence board of nursing requirements.

Aspiring nurse practitioners who wish to enroll in an online degree program will need to check with the program to ensure it meets their state’s requirements. This is often referred to as “state authorization.” Many institutions have gone through the lengthy and expensive process of registering with other state’s nursing boards so that distance education students may complete their program as a step towards licensure.

When applying for an online nurse practitioner program in another state, students should ensure that the program they are considering meets local state nursing board requirements. Most schools detail their state authorization on their website. See below for examples.

State Authorization Examples in Online NP Programs

Here are five schools, some NC-SARA and some not, that offer online nurse practitioner programs.

Duke University School of Nursing

The master’s of science in nursing (MSN) at Duke is authorized by the board of nursing in most states and is an NC-SARA institution. Only students in Alabama, Louisiana, North Dakota, Wyoming, and New York are not eligible. Ranked second in the nation by US News & World Report, this program offers eight different advanced nursing programs and seven specialty certificates.

Washburn University School of Nursing

Students from all but seven states can pursue their online doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree at Washburn University as it is NC-SARA school and has agreements or exemptions from nursing boards across the country. This program places a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship and students can take MBA courses as part of their nursing studies. Students who graduate from this course are not only well trained medical professionals but also strong leaders with the skills necessary to thrive in the rapidly changing medical field.

Samuel Merritt University School of Nursing

With low tuition rates, this fully online master’s of science in nursing (MSN) can be completed in just 20 months. Samuel Merritt offers students an outstanding program that teaches students the clinical knowledge they need to become a family nurse practitioner. Since this school is located in California, they currently cannot participate in NC-SARA. However they have reciprocity agreements for students who reside in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. Samuel Merritt also meets those state’s board of nursing requirements.

Columbus State University School of Nursing

The family nurse practitioner online degree program at Columbus State University is designed for registered nurses who hold a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Students attending full time can complete this program in as little as two years. Practicums are completed in the student’s own area so there is no need to travel. This NC-SARA program is currently not available to students in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, or Washington.

University of Southern Indiana College of Nursing and Health Profession

Students across the country can pursue an online family nurse practitioner degree at the University of Southern Indiana. This flexible program trains students to care for patients and families through a rigorous 42 credit-hours and 665 clinical hours. USI is an NC-SARA school. They have also developed an agreement with California so students who reside there may also pursue their online degrees at USI.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.