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The proposal to create an online community college as part of California’s expansive system of two-year institutions has generated plenty of chatter but hasn’t been smooth sailing.

A subcommittee of the California Assembly last week voted 5 to 2 against Governor Jerry Brown's proposed budget, due to concerns with the online community college and other matters. A joint committee of the State Senate and State Assembly will gather in the coming weeks to reconcile two different proposals, one from each legislative body, that have been floated in response to the governor’s initial request for a fully online community college to launch in fall 2019.

Meanwhile, reservations about the concept have surfaced from several sources. The Community College League of California -- a nonprofit organization that counts the state’s 114 brick-and-mortar community colleges as its members -- thinks a separate online college in its currently proposed form may encroach on the turf of the existing colleges.

Leaders and professors at numerous California community colleges have been quoted in recent weeks criticizing the proposal and arguing that they’re best positioned to expand online offerings, provided they’re given resources to do so. Some faculty organizations have argued the online community college won’t adequately address the constituency it’s designed to serve -- though one union, the California Teachers Association, has in recent weeks shifted its position from opposed to neutral.

The system’s response to criticisms has remained largely the same since the proposal first surfaced last fall. Most of the state’s online offerings at the two-year level are focused on transfer and degrees. The Online Education Initiative, for instance, addresses “bottlenecked courses” needed to complete requirements for an associate degree, according to a spokesperson for the system.

The online college, on the other hand, would offer competency-based programs on a much more flexible academic calendar than what existing colleges are currently equipped to handle. The target audience would be adult learners looking to improve their skills, but within a flexible schedule that meets their diverse needs. Students who start with nondegree programs might eventually be inclined to seek degrees at the two-year institutions, the system argues. Pathway partnerships on health care training and information technology support have already been announced.

Brown in January proposed $100 million in start-up funding and $20 million in annual cost for the new online college. But the Legislature had other ideas.

One alternative proposal from the Senate retains the original shape of Brown's plan, albeit with several tweaks:

  • The Board of Governors of the two-year college system would oversee the online college and have the authority to choose its president, rather than creating a new district as originally proposed.
  • The president of the college would be required to establish an advisory council including local trustees from other community colleges.
  • The online institution would be required to bargain with employees through a contract with the local community college district.
  • During the accreditation process, the state's Workforce Development Board and Employment Development Department would be required to determine whether the online college’s programs have job market value.
  • The college would be required to reimburse fees incurred if it fails to meet accreditation standards.

Those tweaks addressed enough of the California Teachers Association's concerns that it is no longer opposed outright to the online community college, according to a spokesperson for the union. The union is waiting on other stakeholders to weigh in before deciding whether to issue full support, the spokesperson said.

The Assembly, on the other hand, felt this new proposal didn't fundamentally resolve its most pressing question: Why a new entity?

"Having one college run by the Board of Governors while the other 114 are dependent on board decisions regarding policy and funding sets up an eternal conflict of interest," a May 16 report from the Assembly reads. "The [Senate's] Revision proposal to allow the Workforce Development Board to certify programs may be effective, but still leads to the same question: why have a new, unaccredited college develop these programs while 114 existing and accredited colleges could do this work?"

Under the Assembly's proposed legislation, the state would allocate $60 million for an Institute for Innovation in Online Learning that would be connected to one or more existing colleges in the system. The institute would aim for the same slate of offerings currently proposed in the other alternative, but within the confines of an established institution. It would also work with the chancellor’s office to offer grants to colleges for new online courses and programs. The California Federation of Teachers, a collection of unions, supports this option and plans to lobby for it in the coming weeks, according to Matthew Hardy, communications director for the federation.

The league thinks a plan that incorporates elements of both proposals will be the best solution, according to its vice president, Lizette Navarette. In the meantime, she said, member institutions are eager to get approval for flexible calendars and funding for more robust online programs on their own campuses.

"If you were only looking at the discussions in committee hearings, it seems like only a controversial discussion," Navarette said. "It really has been an important one that has prompted a lot of good attention on what we can be doing in online education."

According to federal data, close to 319,000 students at California’s community colleges took some or all of their courses online in 2016 -- up from 249,000 in 2012. Nearly every college had at least 300 online students in 2016; Coastline and Saddleback, both south of Los Angeles, each had approximately 9,000 online students. Some colleges had more students taking part of their course load online, while others saw more students in fully online programs.

Some institutions, like City College of San Francisco, don't see the value of creating a new institution when existing ones already have infrastructure that a new operation will lack from the outset.

"I don’t know why a student would rather take an online course at a fully online college rather than at a local college,” Wynd Kaufmyn, a professor of engineering at City College, told the San Francisco Examiner last week. “I’m not sure what problem they are trying to solve.”

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