Presidents / chancellors

California's online community college is a better alternative to for-profit colleges (opinion)

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it is said. So it behooves those of us in higher education to look and learn at some troublesome events involving for-profit colleges as Congress debates rolling back regulatory oversight, as proposed by the Trump administration.

The second half of that history-lesson truism, however, is even more significant: Once we learn, what do we do about it? Fortunately, there is an affordable, accessible answer to that crucial question, being spearheaded by California’s public community college system.

Certainly, the most searing example of the need for oversight of for-profit colleges is the 2016 closure of one of the nation’s largest for-profit college operators, ITT Technical Institute. The institution was shut down after engaging in deceptive lending practices and failing its students. It was a crisis of significance for more than 40,000 enrolled students, thousands more indebted graduates and 8,000 employees.

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For thousands of students from ITT’s California campuses, community colleges and other state partners served as “first responders,” counseling devastated students on whether credits could transfer to a regionally accredited community college, the availability of financial aid and how and where to access our system.

In many cases, students’ credits could not transfer, and we couldn’t do much about the mounds of debt they had incurred. But we did what we could to guide students to the courses they were after for credentials or degrees, and we let them know our system is open to all students and provides what they want without driving them into overwhelming debt.

To be sure, not all for-profit colleges and universities are bad actors that prey on students, but the sector as a whole needs strong protections for students.

Data-backed arguments against rolling back consumer protections are contained in a study released this month by the Brookings Institution. Brookings’ in-depth analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s gainful-employment regulations found poor economic results for students in for-profit college programs compared to those who attended public institutions or no institution at all.

The Brookings paper calls for stronger accountability measures to ensure that students attending for-profits generate sufficient earnings to cover the high cost of their education. The paper even questions the direction of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on for-profit higher education, calling steps to remove sanctions for predatory for-profit colleges “misguided.”

The double-edged sword with predatory for-profits is that while history and data show they clearly require more consumer protection, they also meet a need for students who can’t access traditional college programs. There is a need for more public alternatives.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a fully online college that will be available to more than 2.5 million people identified as “stranded workers” for whom the traditional college systems do not work and who do not have access to higher education opportunities due to work or family obligations. This population of workers, who are 25 to 34 years old, find themselves at career plateaus because they lack the educational opportunities needed for economic advancement.

The flexible online approach -- which would work for this stranded population, who would be able to learn from home or their smartphone or the library, on their own time and at their own pace -- is growing in acceptance across the nation. It is becoming widely embraced in an increasingly high-tech culture, with students preferring this method of learning when flexibility is needed.

A nationwide survey conducted by Champlain College found that 38 percent of adult learners rank online learning as the best fit for their needs. In California alone, the number of students taking online distance education courses increased by 94,403, or 18 percent, from 2012 to 2015, according to a Babson Survey Research report. Similar fully online models are working well already, such as at Arizona State University, where nearly 75,000 have enrolled in the university’s online program since it was launched seven years ago.

California’s new campus would be the 115th community college in the state’s system and would offer a flexible, affordable learning option that is separate and distinct from existing colleges and traditional online courses. Offering competency-based education and short-term, stackable credentials, it is the appropriate response to the for-profit college problem plaguing so many working adults, who feel they have no other option than to enroll and ultimately go into debt, with no promise of bettering their economic position. Our community colleges already do a stellar job making quality public education available to all comers; the fully online college completes the circle with an innovative way to reach a disenfranchised population with unique needs.

Let history show that California Community Colleges were willing and able leaders in developing a necessary, fully online college that puts consumers above profits and provides an affordable, accessible pathway to economic stability for all.

Author/s: 
Eloy Ortiz Oakley

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of the California community college system, which includes 114 colleges that collectively enroll 2.1 million students.

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