WASHINGTON -- Community colleges and high schools would receive federal funds to create free, online courses in a program that is in the final stages of being drafted by the Obama administration.
The program is part of a series of efforts to help community colleges reach more students and to link basic skills education to job training. The proposals are outlined in administration discussion drafts obtained by Inside Higher Ed. A formal announcement could come in the next few weeks. In addition to the free online courses, the plan would provide $9 billion over 10 years to help community colleges develop and improve programs related to preparing students for good jobs, and a $10 billion loan fund (at low or no interest) for community college facilities.
John White, press secretary for the Education Department, said Sunday that the department would discuss the plans "when the time is right." He said that there is a lot of "high level discussion and excitement" around these ideas related to community colleges.
The funds envisioned for open courses -- $50 million a year -- may be small in comparison to the other ideas being discussed. But in proposing that the federal government pay for (and own) courses that would be free for all, as well as setting up a system to assess learning in those courses, and creating a "National Skills College" to coordinate these efforts, the plan could be significant far beyond its dollars.
The draft language suggests that the administration is throwing its weight behind the movement to put more courses online -- and offer them free -- and is also pushing that movement in the direction of community colleges.
"This is so spot on in terms of what's needed," said Curtis J. Bonk, a professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University at Bloomington and author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education  (forthcoming from Jossey-Bass). Bonk is a fan of programs like OpenCourseWare  at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that put course materials online. But he said that the impact of bringing free online courses to those who may need basic skills and job training could have much more of an impact than the free courses from elite universities.
If this program provided more skills training and education to even a small percentage of those leaving high school without a diploma or those who have no college education, he said, the impact on the individuals and the economy could be huge. "I couldn't think of a more important target than high schools and community colleges for open courses," he said.
According to the draft materials from the administration, the program would support the development of 20-25 "high quality" courses a year, with a mix of high school and community college courses. Initial preference would go to "career oriented" courses. The courses would be owned by the government and would be free for anyone to take. Courses would be selected competitively, through peer review, for support. And the courses would be "modular" or "object based" such that they would be "interoperable" and could be offered with a variety of technology platforms.
Under the plan, the government would also support a "National Skills College" at a community college that would, among other things, work to develop examinations that could be given at the end of the courses so that colleges, employers and students could judge how much learning had taken place. Course developers would be asked to consult with colleges on standards, so that the offerings could be created with the goal of having credit transferred to many institutions. And the National Skills College would work to promote programs that might mix the free courses with tuition courses so students could earn degrees at lower cost.
While the program is described as one that emphasizes community colleges and high schools, it would be open to public agencies and to private for-profit or nonprofit groups.
Advocates for open courses guess that the proposal reflects the ideas of Martha J. Kanter, the under secretary of education. Kanter was previously chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District. In that position, she helped to create the Community College Consortium for Open Education Resources,  which has pioneered the idea of making textbooks and other course materials for community college students available free and online.
Bonk said that administration's ideas about open courses are consistent with the "convergence" he sees taking place in online learning. There is a growing belief that for many kinds of courses, there are best providers whose work can be made available online, there are large numbers of students who could benefit from those courses, and those who might benefit don't necessarily have a lot of money. "It's time for this," he said.
As for concerns that the students who could benefit might not have laptops or Internet access, Bonk said that was a real concern. But now, he said, students lack those things and perceive college as too expensive. By making courses available free, he said, communities can then expand library access to computers, or start laptop programs -- and this will make more sense when the tuition issue is removed. "I think the ability to tell people, 'Hey there are these courses now available for free' is going to create incentives for lots of laptop programs to appear," he said.
Support for Job Training and Facilities
The discussion draft for the job training program calls for spending $500 million a year in the first five years of the program, during which grants would be awarded competitively to community colleges, and $1.3 billion after that, at which point 50 percent of funds would be awarded by formula to states, 25 percent awarded to those states showing high performance programs, and 25 percent to community colleges, awarded competitively.
To be eligible, community colleges would need to agree to track and report on student outcomes, and to set targets for graduation rates and "employment-related outcomes," while also serving "high need populations." Funds could then be used to create programs that "blend basic skills and occupational training," to provide "comprehensive, personalized services to help students plan their coursework and careers and support services that will keep them in school," and to create programs in partnerships with employers
The loan fund for community college facilities would receive $10 billion under the plan. The loans would be for 10 years for repairs and renovations and 25 years for construction, and the plan calls for the loans to be "zero or low interest." The funds would first be distributed to states, which would have to pledge that these funds would not cause states to cut funds for the colleges. States would distribute funds based on "demonstrated need," with an emphasis on expanding capacity in programs that "meet employer needs in the areas of health care, green jobs, science, engineering and technology."
Community college leaders said that they had not seen the discussion drafts and wanted to see the details, but that they were generally encouraged by the ideas in play.
George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said that the infusion of funds being contemplated "sounds very positive to us," especially given the pressure community colleges are under to meet rising enrollment demands at a time of shrinking state support. He said that colleges are being forced to turn students away, "which is the wrong thing to be doing in this economy," and that the funds for job training programs could help community colleges educate more people, and help them prepare for good jobs.
On the facilities loans, Boggs said that his association has estimated a $100 billion need for new community college facilities, so any new source of funds would be welcome. He added, however, that some community colleges may not be able to participate, even if the loans have little or no interest. Various state and local laws govern community college borrowing, and it may be hard for some of them to issue bonds or make financial commitments to participate in the program, he said. While the program may be "quite helpful" for some colleges, he said, others may not be able to join without "some kind of revenue stream."
J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees, said that the proposals the administration is drafting "reflect big priorities of ours." Brown said that the colleges recognize that the administration "can't cure all of our infrastructure ills" or sagging budgets. But he said that with community colleges being forced to limit enrollments in ways "that break my heart," these programs are a huge advance.
"Frankly anything is going to be helpful, and this would be a lot more than we have right now," he said. Brown added that these programs would enable community colleges to "help turn around the economy."
Boggs also noted the unusual prominence that the administration is giving to community colleges as institutions that can help deal with the country's economic mess. "I think the spotlight is really shining on community colleges right now," he said.