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More than two million Californians have attended college but don’t have a degree, which is a problem the state’s two-year system is trying to help solve with a new statewide, online-only college. Today the system will submit three options for the college to its Board of Governors.

“What we’re trying to do is provide access to a population we’re not serving,” said Jose Fierro, president of Cerritos College and co-chair of the group that developed the three online options. “We’re trying to look to the future to provide as many options for upward mobility given the changes in the economy and population in the state.”

The proposed online college would seek not to compete with the system’s 114 brick-and-mortar campuses or their online offerings, officials said, but instead would be an option for people who can’t go to the traditional campuses or didn’t transition to college in a typical way. The plan, dubbed Project FLOW (Flex Learning Options for Workers), includes a focus on work-force credentials and nondegree certifications.

It’s aimed at the 2.5 million Californians with some college and no degree, 48 percent of whom are from Spanish-speaking homes.

“Now they’re in the work force and may be underemployed and have problems with social mobility,” Fierro said. “Our current system may not be the best choice for them to access education, so for constituents across the state we developed three different options to provide this particular group of students an alternative to access higher education.”

However, some critics said that despite the focus by the system and the governor’s office, students and residents are not asking for the online college.

“The idea that students are breaking down the barricade to have this is a fallacy,” said Jim Miller, an English professor at San Diego City College and a member of the California Federation of Teachers, a faculty union. “It would be one thing if we had no online options, but we already have it.”

The two-year system’s Online Education Initiative, which debuted last year, allows students to register and participate in online courses across multiple degree programs. The initiative also provides online counseling and allows students to find and take online courses that may be overbooked on their home campus. There’s also the California Virtual Campus, which works alongside OEI, to help students transfer to California State University.

The intention isn’t to compete with currently available online options, said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the system’s chancellor.

In order to reach a different population of students, particularly working adults who are looking to quickly gain skills and have economic mobility, “we have to give them a different option than what we’re offering at the brick and mortars,” he said.

Option 1

The first possibility described would create a separate online college that serves students statewide but is housed at an existing community college.

That college would be responsible for employing or contracting with instructional designers and faculty members to develop the online academic programs. The existing college’s staff also would provide student support services and would be tasked with building additional employer relationships outside their own institution’s region.

Option 2

The second option would create a consortium of colleges to collaborate and create the statewide online college. Institutions would volunteer to be a part of the consortium and decide together how the online college should serve students and deliver content, Fierro said.

The consortium would be responsible for employing faculty and instructional designers to handle the curriculum and for developing support services.

Option 3

The final option would create the system’s 115th college with operations support coming from the chancellor’s office, Fierro said, adding that the chancellor and board would hire a president to lead the online institution.

“The idea of developing these online college plans is not to compete for students currently in the system,” he said, adding that the online institution is expected to grow to about 45,000 students in the first seven years of operation and to provide instruction in English and Spanish.

The chancellor’s office isn’t recommending any one option to the board or the governor, but will meet with the governor’s office to talk through the advantages and challenges of each option, Oakley said, including a discussion of possible regulatory obstacles to implementing the proposals.

As for the cost of each proposal, the governor’s finance department is working with the system to evaluate each option and to develop a cost estimate, he said.

Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has been encouraging the state’s public education systems to come up with solutions that increase college access for students and lead to better outcomes, Oakley said. It was Brown who urged the system to come up with the three options that -- once approved by the board -- will be presented to him.

“The governor expressed to us a sense of urgency,” Oakley said. “We know that our colleges have been doing a wonderful job of improving their ability to reach the population of students we have. Students accessing and taking online education have increased, but we also see total enrollment staying the same. We’re doing a better job of reaching students where they’re at and giving them options to learn, but the type and number of students we’re reaching is the same.”

The system serves about 2.1 million students. Ten years ago enrollment was about 2.7 million.

There are concerns, however, about attempting to create a brand-new institution that would specifically address the needs of working adults.

A Brookings Institution study from earlier this year indicated that students who are the least prepared for traditional college don’t do well in online courses.

“I don’t think the idea of entirely online serves community colleges well,” Miller said. “It’ll be sold in terms of access and serving students, but the great irony of that is if I go out and talk to my students and ask would they want their difficult statistics class face-to-face or online, the vast majority will say face-to-face. They say it’s much more trouble taking them online, and these are students who have taken them and did well.”

Miller connects this push for a statewide online college to the similar rush a few years ago to bring massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to community college students in California.

“This is probably well intended,” he said. “But in a time when we might get hit, in terms of the tax plan, in education funding from the federal level, spending resources to invent something that is unnecessary is a bad idea.”

Oakley said the system understands the adult student population is difficult to serve and they will have to do more than just reach those students.

The system is also looking at other online models at places like Arizona State University and Western Governors University, particularly at how to develop advising and student supports that can be delivered through technology.

“It’s very challenging to reach the population we’re trying to reach,” Fierro said. “But it’s important to establish steps to get students to the level of comfort that is required in order to learn. Yes, they may not be proficient initially in an online platform, but that essentially means we have to work with experts, instructional designers and faculty to help students.”

Jim Mayer, president of California Forward, a bipartisan public interest organization, said a completely online college would not only benefit those people who are already working and can’t afford to attend a traditional community college, but also small employers that can’t afford to create the infrastructure needed to provide training for their employees.

“The community colleges, by building this platform, can help the smaller employers, who are the fuel of our economy, to have the work force they need,” he said, adding that the partnerships created for the college would help ensure that its student employees are trained for future work-force needs.

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