With time running out on his governorship, Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing California’s 114-campus community college system to create one more college: a new fully online college that would have been unimaginable during his first term as governor.
To that end, he met Wednesday with California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley and Vice Chancellor of Workforce and Digital Futures Van Ton-Quinlivan to consider several options for establishing the college. Last May, Brown sent Oakley a letter asking him “to take whatever steps are necessary to establish a new community college that — exclusively — offers a fully online degree program,” and to come up with plan for how to do so by last month.
A task force Oakley established completed its report by Nov. 30 and included four options, which Oakley presented to the governor. One option is to create a separate online college to be housed at an existing college. Another is to set up a consortium of colleges to create the statewide online college. A third is to create a new online community college district within the chancellor’s office in Sacramento. In response to faculty concerns, Brown was presented with a newly added option — to just expand the community colleges’ existing online offerings.
Neither the chancellor’s nor the governor’s office were willing to comment on which of the four options appealed to Brown. The proposal is likely to be included in Brown’s proposed FY2019 budget — his last as governor — that he will present to the Legislature in January.
The proposed college is designed to serve the needs of a large population of Californians that the massive community college system — the largest higher education system in the world — currently doesn’t serve.
In an interview with EdSource, Oakley said that the online college will reach California residents who have received some college education, but never completed a credential, or have been in the workforce and have never been to college at all. Especially at risk are those whose jobs are threatened by automation and technological innovation generally. Oakley said these workers number between 2.5 million and 4 million and that they have become “very vulnerable” in the post-Recession period.
He cited the example of 50-year-old-plus workers who have some or no college education, have been working for 20 or 30 years, but have no way of advancing in the job market because they lack the skills to do so. “We call these individuals stranded workers,” he said. “They become targets of predatory or for-profit institutions that take advantage of their struggles and their desperation, offer them courses promising high wages at the other end, but all they do is saddle them with high debt.”
Already about one-third of the over 2.1 million students currently enrolled in the California Community Colleges are taking at least one online course. This fall the community college system established its Online Education Initiative to further promote online instruction. Jory Hadsell, its executive director, said contrary to stereotypes, for some students online instruction encourages greater, rather than less, participation than a regular classroom. “In the structured format of online courses, students are prompted to engage right from the beginning,” he said. “It is hard to hide in the back of the classroom, and let other students answer questions.”
He also said that students have a good deal of contact with an online course’s instructor. “Students don’t sign up for an online course, and never hear from anyone for a long time,” he said. “It is quite the opposite. Our online courses are really rigorous, and the result is students getting to know each other better than they would than if they were sitting in desks in a classroom.”
Since being elected governor for a second term in 2010, Brown has persistently pushed to increase online instruction at the state’s public universities, in part in response to their limited seat capacity at a time of increasing enrollment pressures. But the path has not been without obstacles or controversy. For example, a joint program at San Jose State University with the online firm Udacity, called SJSU Plus, floundered several years ago, in part because of faculty opposition.
Brown’s online community college proposal also generated considerable opposition from the faculty. The system’s Academic Senate said that the deadline set by Brown to get the college off the ground was rushed, and that the community colleges’ existing online programs could be expanded to meet the need, in lieu of creating a separate college.
“These are legitimate questions and concerns,” Oakley said. “We feel there are answers to those, and we feel there is experience and research throughout the country to address those concerns.”
Despite faculty opposition, Brown’s push for online instruction has arguably gotten the best response at the community colleges. The nature of the community college population — older, part-time students, many of whom are working — has put more pressure on community colleges than on the University of California and California State University to offer courses that give students greater flexibility. As a result, over the past dozen years, online enrollment at the community colleges have more than doubled, from 13 percent of students in 2005 to about one-third today.
The new online college, however, will serve a largely new population, presenting the sprawling system with new challenges. “This is a population that has a hard time getting to our brick and mortar colleges, or fitting into our traditional academic schedule,” Oakley said. “We will have a lot of work to do to reach these working age adults, and give them access to higher education and the support services they need to succeed.”