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California’s Coastline Community College is set to create low-cost, online bachelor’s degree pathways where students can enroll simultaneously at one of three public universities, none of which are in California.

The new partnership between Coastline and the University of Massachusetts Online, Penn State University’s World Campus and the University of Illinois-Springfield should go live next spring. The project’s leaders hope it will serve as a model for expanding capacity at California’s community colleges, which have been forced to turn away hundreds of thousands of students because of budget cuts.

Community college leaders in the state are already searching for new ways to meet student demand. An official with the 112-college California community college system said the central office is in the early phases of considering online credit pathways with the help of outside providers, perhaps even through massive open online courses (MOOCs).

“The California Community Colleges are working with colleges and other government agencies to develop a strategy to respond to current innovations in online course delivery, including MOOCs,” Paul Feist, a spokesman in the system chancellor’s office, said via e-mail.

The program at Coastline could be part of the solution. Its leaders said one of the chief goals is to be an online option for California’s students that could compete with for-profit institutions, in part by undercutting them on price. Bachelor’s degrees earned in the joint-enrollment track should run 30 to 40 percent cheaper than similar offerings from for-profits, they said.

With the new online degrees, Coastline hopes to cut its wait list in half and to enroll an estimated 10,000 additional students. That's because students will be enrolled jointly at Coastline and the online universities for the second half of their associate programs.

The college is a natural spot for an online experiment in the state’s community college system. It lacks a traditional campus, with three small locations around Orange County and a focus on distance education and serving members of the military. Most Coastline students take at least one class remotely.

“It operates more like a Rio Salado model,” said Stella Perez, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the League for Innovation in the Community College, referring to the fully online community college in Arizona’s Maricopa system. “It’s a college without walls.”

The League is overseeing the pilot project, which received $450,000 in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Dubbed “Learning First,” its aim is to tap existing, high-quality online options to meet student demand, rather than community colleges spending hard-to-find money to create their own online offerings.

Last year Gates summoned representatives from universities with heavy online presences to a meeting to discuss how to boost college degree attainment. The meeting sparked the idea of linking community colleges with public universities across state lines, eventually leading to the choice of three with a solid Internet pedigree.

“These are expert universities in online university delivery,” Perez said.

The California State University System has its own online degree programs, which are also relatively inexpensive. As the two-year system's natural partner, with newly strengthened transfer agreements, some observers might wonder why Coastline needs to go outside California. But Cal State has its own intertwined budget and capacity problems, and with the Gates' grant seeking out industry leaders in online education, UMass and others fit the bill.

Not everyone is excited about the idea

"I confess to having a lot of misgivings," said Steve Filling, a professor of business ethics at Cal State Stanislaus and vice chair of the statewide academic senate. "There's a huge array of problems there."

For starters, Filling said he worries about how the partnerships could be seamless, given the differences between institutions and their "learning cultures." He also said fully online programs have an iffy record in the community college sector, even for students who are good self-starters. Finally, the program will at best be a boutique solution to the state's capacity problems, Filling said, given the relatively small number of students who will be able to take advantage of it. He is also skeptical that Coastline will be able to enroll 10,000 students in the new online tracks.

"I just don't see that happening," Filling said.

Online and In-State

The partnering public institutions have agreed not to charge out-of-state tuition for Coastline’s students who enroll in the concurrent program. That means a bachelor’s degree from UMass Online would cost a total of $25,000, Perez said, assuming students would take five years to complete them.

Under the project, students would attend Coastline full-time for their first year of course offerings, with a targeted haul of 30 credits. They would then be concurrently enrolled at the college and one of its three university partners for the next two years. The curriculum of that segment would be 60 credits. Then, the final year would be 30 credits of “capstone” courses at the online university. Students could complete their associate degree on their way to a bachelor’s.

The jointly devised degree offerings are aimed primarily at underserved and lower-income adults, officials said.

“They are now being offered an opportunity to walk away with a University of Massachusetts business baccalaureate,” for example, Perez said. And students can stay in California while working toward their degrees. “They would never have to leave their home community.”

Part of the project’s planning phase has been to create “one stop, one call” pathway for students, so they hardly notice that they’re attending both a college in Orange County and a university in Springfield, Illinois, to pick one. That means sharing a common application, shared student services, one registrar and joint online bookstores and libraries.

Merging services isn’t an easy task. But Perez said the three online publics have plenty of experience cutting through red tape, sometimes even having to cope with unwieldy policies within their own systems.

Penn State went online with its World Campus in 1998. The university now offers 80 online degrees and certificates, mostly in high-demand disciplines.

The partnership with Coastline is part of a broader goal of helping colleges do more for students with fewer resources, said Wayne Smutz, World Campus’s executive director, in a written statement.

“Online learning can help solve this challenge by putting students first -- enabling them to earn a college degree in their community, with additional online courses,” he said. “To do this, we need to engage institutions already doing online learning in a big way with institutions that have no more capacity for serving students.”

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