In May 2019, the Christensen Institute interviewed members of the Presidents Forum to identify challenges in higher education that require collaborative efforts and systemic change. A number of themes emerged that, already relevant before COVID-19 ravaged the nation, have only grown in importance and urgency. This is the second of four blog posts, all written prior to the pandemic, that address these themes and share insights from the leaders of some of higher education’s most innovative institutions.

Military spouses, in addition to bearing some of the heaviest and most personal burdens of public service, face a labor market lockout. Nearly a quarter of military spouses are unemployed and they earn, on average, 75 cents on the dollar relative to their equally qualified, non-military peers. 

One of the critical barriers to employment opportunities for military spouses? State licensure requirements. Nearly 35 percent of military spouses have a job, like teaching, or nursing, that requires a state license. Every time a military family moves—typically every two to three years, and often with no notice—a military spouse must find a new job. But where state licensure is involved, because requirements can vary widely by state, this often means studying for exams, completing new course requirements, and documenting hours in the field—just to stay in the same field. Military spouses represent the canary in the coalmine of American economic mobility. 

Civilian families face these challenges too. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that the number of jobs requiring state licensure has grown from one in 20 to one in four over the past 60 years. Even before the pandemic, state licensure was one of the factors driving interstate mobility to record lows, making it hard for workers to move, and limiting opportunity for those that do. Rethinking state licensure could prove to be an accelerant in the nation’s recovery.

Innovators in higher education have had enough

When it comes to the teaching profession, The Christensen Institute has long argued that state licensure creates unnecessary barriers to mobility, is a driving factor in teacher shortages, and doesn’t achieve desired outcomes around quality and improving teacher preparation. Dick Senese, President of Capella University—as well as a licensed psychologist—says those concerns extend to counseling, social work, and psychology as well. These professions are conservative and concerned with high-quality client care—but varying state requirements lead to uneven standards across the country: there are 1,100 professions that require an occupational license to work in at least one state, but fewer than 60 professions are regulated in all 50 states.  

Paul Shiffman, the former Executive Director of the Presidents Forum, argues that the issue is critical for higher education as it looks to create value for students. “We need to advocate for people to be able to move their credentials from state to state.” The Presidents Forum was a leading voice in the development of SARA, a law that created state reciprocity in the authorization of distance learning programs, and Shiffman sees reform around state licensure as the next step, “both to meet workforce needs, and to create access for students.”

The variation between professional licensure requirements across states creates issues for higher education, not just its students. In some states, particular programs are required to meet the requirements for professional licensing in the state—but other states may have different requirements, may not have professional licensing for that profession at all, or may not require schools to design their programs to fit the constraints of state licensure. Especially for schools that are active in more than one state, as most schools with online programs are, this is an administrative nightmare. Competency-based providers and other innovative instructional models have additional headaches trying to translate their programs into professional licensure requirements specifying seat time in traditional courses. 

What’s to be done?

State licensure requirements hurt worker mobility—but they also raise costs and barriers to innovative programs in higher education. There is even evidence that they raise barriers to innovation within licensed professions. But licensure requirements do benefit one group: those already working in the industry,who tend to experience pay bumps and less risk of unemployment. And since licensure boards tend to consist of those already working in an industry in a particular state—not consumers, students, or those in other states—it’s not in their interest to reduce barriers to mobility. 

The issue was of concern to the Obama administration, and is now one on which the Trump administration is trying to make progress. Taking on licensure requirements is a commonsense issue with rare bipartisan agreement, but because it’s a state issue, there is little the federal government can do. The military is now providing (some) assistance to spouses facing state licensure challenges, but this is a workaround, not a real solution. 

State governors and legislatures, on the other hand, can make a real difference. Arizona recently moved to allow workers who come to Arizona with licenses from other states to continue in their professions unfettered by the need to get relicensed. Pennsylvania is making similar moves

Interstate agreements have potential too. SARA could be a model for state reciprocity around professional license requirements. SARA is built on interstate compacts—agreements to accept other states’ requirements for authorizing schools. But it also serves to coordinate information between states about what they are requiring of schools in their jurisdictions, and why. The resources and support provided by SARA have helped all states get better at regulating higher education, and helped even the standards across the country. 

Higher education leaders can be a powerful voice for their students

State licensure limits opportunity—but those negatively affected by it often have little voice. While professional associations can lobby for the interests of workers in a state, those blocked from working in a particular profession have no equivalent non-professional association. In many cases, those facing barriers to opportunity are students or alumni of higher education institutions. Institutions—especially those with innovative models—face administrative costs in complying with a myriad of state professional licensing requirements. It would be in higher education leaders’ interest to be a voice for state licensure reciprocity and reform—and it would be a way for schools to create value and economic mobility on behalf of the learners they serve.


  • Christensen Institute
    Christensen Institute