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Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a statewide online community college.

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California’s state Legislature is considering a proposal from Governor Jerry Brown to create a new online community college within the state’s system of 114 brick-and-mortar two-year institutions. The broad plans have drawn cautious optimism from many observers, though some details have yet to emerge, and the impact of the new institution’s approach remain difficult to predict.

Architects of the proposal acknowledge that this new institution alone won't resolve the state's myriad problems: ripple effects from recession-era budget cuts that shut out 600,000 Californians from enrolling; massive population growth in the last decade; the looming prospect of automation radically reshaping the job market.

The goal of the new institution is to create a new option -- the first of many, perhaps -- for adults who want to enter the work force or relocate within it.

“We recognize that there is not one silver bullet that we could develop that would deal with all of the challenges that we’re facing in the current work force and with the wave of changes that are coming,” Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, told “Inside Digital Learning.”

The online institution will offer certificates and badges but no degrees. Students will proceed through course work in a competency-based format that emphasizes learning modules targeted to improve specific skills. Content for the new programs will draw from existing programs at the system’s other institutions, with a focus on “short bursts of learning” that can take place outside the traditional academic calendar, according to Oakley.

Assuming the institution secures legislative budget approval this summer for $100 million in start-up costs and $20 million in ongoing funds, the system hopes to offer the first programs in the last quarter of 2019, according to Oakley.

Analysts interviewed for this article offered tentative support for the plans, with caveats for the parts that aren’t fully fleshed out. Not everyone is on board, though. The California Federation of Teachers, a faculty union, has been a strong critic of the online community college proposal since it was floated last fall, and now stands firm as one of its most prominent dissenters, along with the Academic Senate of California Community Colleges.

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the union, told “Inside Digital Learning” that the new institution’s target audience typically performs poorly in online courses, and that the existing colleges adequately serve students interested in online courses. His organization also worries that about the possibility that the institution will subvert the established faculty governance model, though the system has yet to announce specific plans on that point.

The union plans to vigorously oppose the proposal, potentially by recruiting dissenting members of the system's Board of Governors and Board of Trustees -- though none have yet come forward against the plans.

Meanwhile, the faculty senate would prefer to see the system formulate a consortium that addresses the issues now set to be taken up by the new institution. That idea was one of several that was rejected in favor of the current plan (see sidebar), and the faculty senate wants to see it restored.

"Completing one's education within our existing structures ensures that students have the benefit of existing awards and articulation agreements as well as access to on-the-ground services," Julie Bruno, president of the senate, wrote in an email. "Shifting funds to a new entity necessarily detracts from supporting our existing colleges and is truly a missed opportunity to invest in ensuring that all 114 colleges are doing all that they can to address the needs of the proposed target population."

Uphill Battles and Unanswered Questions

One of the biggest open questions about the online community college is whether a new institution will cannibalize enrollment at existing institutions. Burck Smith, CEO of the alternative higher education provider StraighterLine, sees potential for the competency-based certificate path to appeal to some students who otherwise would have pursued a face-to-face or online degree at an existing community college. Pechthalt said the union harbors similar concerns over quality and appeal, as does the senate.

Smith said he's unconvinced, though, that the system can offer credentials and certificates that substantially improve upon other options currently available to students from MOOCs, tech companies and associations. As a result, the decision to focus on that slice of the market strikes Smith as misguided.

Oakley, though, thinks the audience for the online institution sufficiently differs from the typical population at the community colleges, as a result of planners' concerted effort to reach students who aren't well served by the system's current offerings. He envisions the institution reaching adults between their 20s and their 60s with a high school diploma or some college as their highest level of education. The latter category includes 2.5 million Californians, 48 percent of whom are from Spanish-speaking homes. Because of their work schedules or other personal obligations, the community college route isn’t logistically feasible for them.

Sally Johnstone, president of the ‎National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which offered consulting help in formulating the plans, believes many of California's online community college programs are "oversubscribed" and that students could benefit from another option. She expects enrollment will start slow as the new institution establishes its brand.

Oakley believes the new institution could end up driving enrollment at the existing institutions, if learners obtain lower-level credentials and want to progress into degrees.

Accreditation could also be in the cards for the new institution if Congress and the Department of Education later this year amend the federal government's current approach to dispensing financial aid, according to Johnstone. Right now, institutions that don't offer degrees aren't eligible for federal financial aid, but if that environment were to change, California's new online community college could be well positioned to reap the benefits, Johnstone said. Accreditation could also appease the faculty union, which has blasted the prospect of a nonaccredited institution sullying the community college brand.

Options Left Behind

This approach won out over three other options drafted last year as part of the research process for the initiative, dubbed Project FLOW (Flex Learning Options for Workers).

  • Maintaining the status quo by supporting efforts at existing institutions to reach out to working-age adults who wanted to take courses online. Decision makers felt this option was insufficient, Oakley said.
  • Pulling together a consortium of colleges to jointly develop platforms and content, in the vein of the existing Online Education Initiative. That process appeared too time-consuming given the urgency of reaching the stranded work force, and it raised questions about ownership of the platform that aren’t easily resolved, according to Oakley.
  • Providing funding to existing colleges that expressed willingness to engage in new online programs. “The concern about that option was about the lack of scale,” Oakley said -- some communities would have new resources while others would not.

Rather than its own members, the institution's planners see for-profit online institutions as its main competition. The chancellor believes Californians deserve an affordable public alternative to that path, which can be risky given the wildly varying quality of for-profit institutions.

Observers interviewed for this article said that the strength of the credential offerings will be measured by employers’ interest in hiring people who acquire them.

“For an adult learner, learning for the sake of learning or for the sake of completion of a degree or program is not as important,” said Charla Long, executive director of the Competency-Based Education Network.

Oakley said the system has begun reaching out to several employer groups and labor organizations, and that others have reached out to the system.

The online institution would enter a crowded market with competition from several directions. Long pointed out that other states, including Tennessee and Texas, have found success with programs such as those run by the Utah-based Western Governors University. Johnstone, who served as vice president for academic advancement at Western Governors from 2011 to 2016, said this new institution's focus on work-force development meant it wouldn't be a good fit for a partnership with WGU.

Long believes the new institution will only succeed if its competency-based elements adhere to her organization’s standards, which include plentiful access to faculty members and student success coaches. She also hopes the new institution includes in its definition of competency more than just skills.

“A true competency-based program is knowledge, skills, abilities and intellectual behaviors -- the ‘softer skills’ a person needs in order to be successful,” Long said.

Currently in California

The vast majority of California's community colleges offer online courses. In 2016 the system introduced the Online Education Initiative, which allows students to register and participate in online courses across multiple colleges.

Between 2012 and 2016, all but 12 of those institutions saw increases in the number of students enrolled exclusively in online courses, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. In total, the system increased online-exclusive enrollment by 32,000 students between 2012 and 2016, when more than 127,000 students were enrolled fully online.

Coastline Community College, south of Los Angeles, added more exclusively online students during that time period than any other two-year institution in the state. Vince Rodriguez, Coastline's vice president of instruction, attributes the increase to the institution's longstanding infrastructure supporting distance education that dates to the 1970s, when students watched lectures on local broadcast television and submitted assignments by snail mail. Rodriguez said the average age of online Coastline students has dropped in recent years and is now at 29 years old -- a mix of local students and those from other parts of the state.

Though Rodriguez refrained from offering his opinion of the statewide online community college, he said he is looking forward to providing faculty members with professional development opportunities that could result from an institution devoted entirely to online courses. He also points out that, just as the new institution's designers have argued, Coastline mainly focuses on degree offerings for students, distinct from the certificates and badges that will be at the center of the new institution.

Institution Students Enrolled
in Distance Education
Number of Fully Distance Students Added  2012-2016
Coastline Community College 8,265 2,329
Saddleback College 4,259 1,346
American River College 3,621 430
San Joaquin Delta College 3,331 1,243
San Diego Miramar College 2,724 480
MiraCosta College 2,676 657
San Diego City College 2,676 162
Santa Barbara City College 2,543 378
Sacramento City College 2,380 812
Los Angeles City College 2,253 -301

Data courtesy of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

The Story Isn’t Written Yet

Chancellor Oakley said he has not ruled out the possibility of partnering with existing institutions with similar offerings -- he cites the private Brandman University as an example, though he wants the program to be “purely a California public institution that is recognized for quality in California,” no matter who else is involved.

The institution could eventually offer degrees as the next step in its certificate track, Oakley said. “We would want to extend the capacity of this online institution that will allow students to progress and obtain higher-level credentials,” Oakley said.

Russ Poulin, director of policy and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, thinks the institution should consider adding degrees soon, in order to differentiate it from alternative providers such as information technology boot camps.

Other elements of the proposal remain underdeveloped. A tuition model hasn’t yet been established, though Oakley said it will be “consistent with the low-cost affordable tuition that California community colleges offer.”

A separate online institution also allows its leaders to focus exclusively on developing its initiatives, rather than shoehorning more responsibilities onto an existing institution’s already full plate, according to Poulin.

“When you create something new, you don’t have to bring along the old,” Poulin said. “You can be very focused and make sure everything you create is focused on that singular mission that you have.”

As a budget fight looms, Oakley believes the new institution will only become more essential, with the collective power of talent and energy in California's institutions and industries.

“We are confident that we can tap into that expertise, that experience and that commitment to provide a technology-supported solution for these adult learners,” Oakley said. “It is not only in the interest of the community college system -- it is in the interest of the employers of California and the people of California that we find a better solution for these individuals.”

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