California’s online community college will break new ground in higher ed

August 2, 2018

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley during a call Wednesday told community college presidents across the state they have the green light to move classes online as they deem necessary.

California’s online community college will represent a new vision for higher education when it launches next year and the online education field is watching to see whether it succeeds.

The new fully online college draws from a variety of sources, including public universities’ online degree programs, corporate worker training initiatives and programs at for-profit colleges. California plans to blend those existing influences to create something without precedent: A statewide, online-only public college focused on short, career-oriented certificates.

“This is, in many ways, new for the public systems in this country, and that’s why it’s gaining a lot of attention from the rest of the country,” California Community College System Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley told EdSource.

Gov. Jerry Brown envisions the college as a training option for so-called “stranded workers” – the estimated 2.5 million 25- to 34-year-old Californians who don’t have a college education. Once it opens in 2019 it will become a key piece of Brown’s education legacy for California. Brown and the college’s proponents say it will also help fuel the state’s economy — the fifth-largest in the world — and its insatiable need for skilled labor.

The new method will come with challenges, according to researchers who study online education and administrators of other online programs. They include providing adequate student support for adult learners who may not have succeeded in other formal education settings and ensuring that the credentials the college awards fulfill their promise of helping graduates earn more money.

The college’s first three programs will prepare students for careers in medical coding, information technology and supervisor roles in fields such as retail and government. College officials say each of those fields has a shortage of workers and requires education beyond high school, though not necessarily a full degree.

The online college plans to begin offering courses in the fall of 2019 and is expected to cost $240 million over its first seven years, not counting funding the college will receive for each enrolled student. It will become the 115th institution in the community college system, the largest higher education system in the country. The System’s Board of Governors will meet to discuss the online college on Monday and is expected to take up a motion launching the search for the new institution’s CEO.

Proponents say the online college has the potential to reach a population of Californians who aren’t being served by any of the existing college options either in person or online.

“It is a different way of doing things,” said Lande Ajose, executive director of California Competes, which researches and advocates for strategies to increase the number of people in the state with college credentials. “The hope is that it will both satisfy some very specific and concrete labor market demand issues for individual workers, and potentially excite them about maybe going back to their local community college.”

Students looking for a college education online have plenty of options. Courses and full degree programs are already available online from the California Community College System, as well as the University of California and California State University systems. But none of those initiatives are exactly like the California Online College, as the new institution is called, because each focuses primarily on students earning two- or four-year degrees.

For instance, the Community College System’s Online Education Initiative, an effort to expand access to online instruction that was launched in 2013 and bolstered with an additional $35 million in the 2018-19 state budget, offers online courses to students already enrolled at community colleges.

With its narrow focus, the new online college initiative resembles worker-training programs offered by some employers and for-profit schools, but would be available to students at the Community College System’s lower cost.

System leaders estimate the online college’s credential programs could take as little as four months to complete for students studying full-time, or 18 months for those taking classes part-time. Officials have said each program would consist of a short sequence of classes but they have not determined how many credit hours each program would require.

Oakley said tuition for the programs will be based on the community college system’s rate of $46 per credit, the lowest fee level of any community college in the country. Because the online college will use a different credit structure than traditional courses, Oakley said, the system is still working out tuition rates for the new institution.

Patrick Partridge, senior vice president for strategic planning at Western Governors University, an online nonprofit institution that enrolls nearly 100,000 students, said he is not aware of any other efforts to “build a community college around almost entirely non-degree programs.”

“In that sense I would consider it a first,” Partridge said.

Brown’s proposal for the new online college initially faced opposition from faculty leaders and skepticism from lawmakers and the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, which questioned whether the institution was necessary given the other online education options students have. The Legislature ultimately approved the college as part of the 2018-19 state budget and the community college system’s Academic Senate dropped its opposition to the plan after the budget was signed into law.

The online college will be required to offer one associate’s degree program to earn accreditation, said Paul Feist, a spokesman for the system, though there are no plans to offer any more than that single program. Feist said college officials have yet to design that program and are pursuing accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

Plans for the online college also call for it to use competency-based education, a learning technique that measures job-related knowledge students can prove they have mastered and rewards students for skills gained from work experience before enrolling. Oakley said the college is still working out precisely how it will use competency-based education and assess students’ skills, but predicted the model will make the college more responsive to students.

“We can be much more targeted, we can give them credit for the prior learning they demonstrate, and we can help them — at their pace — gain those skills toward mastery,” Oakley said.

That focus will help address one of the online college’s potential challenges, according to Oakley: Ensuring that its students, who in many cases never pursued a college education, stick with their programs and graduate. This is especially concerning for students of color and those who are the first in their family to attend college.

A 2014 Public Policy Institute of California report on online offerings in the California Community College System noted students were less likely to complete and pass online courses than in-person ones. Other research has found students who have been successful in traditional academic environments can do well in online learning programs, but those who have not fared as well in conventional settings often struggle in online education as well.

“Anybody who is going to do (online education), you need to be thinking about your support for students and how you’re going to provide that wrap-around service,” said Rick Kemp, dean of instruction and partnerships at Rio Salado Community College in Arizona.

California officials have cited Rio Salado as a source of inspiration for their online college. Rio Salado offers non-degree credentials in dozens of fields, in addition to traditional degrees, with programs available both online and in person at campuses in the Phoenix area.

Oakley said students in California’s online college will have around-the-clock access to support services, including tutoring, technical support and academic as well as financial advising. And while the college will not have a physical campus of its own, plans call for it to lease space for some instruction and support services, such as computer labs and in-person coaching, from brick-and-mortar community colleges, libraries, community organizations and labor groups.

Although the college’s students may not have continued their education beyond a high school diploma, Oakley said, they have in many cases gained skills through their careers or in settings such as the military. Oakley predicted the online college’s credential programs will be “much more digestible for the learner.”

“This is very different than the environment that we traditionally put these students in,” Oakley said.

College officials also hope the online certificates become a pathway into traditional community colleges. Oakley said the system is working to ensure credits students earn online transfer to a brick-and-mortar college and can be put toward a degree if those students decide to continue their studies.

The online college’s ultimate test, though, will be what happens with the program’s graduates: Whether the certificates they earn lead to pay raises and better careers, or if employers don’t accept or understand the certificates’ value because they are not traditional degrees.

“Colleges can create whatever certificate with whatever fancy name they want,” said Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “The proof is, ‘After I graduate, can I use this for upward mobility?’”

Oakley agreed and pointed to the system’s partnerships with companies and labor unions in the design of the online college, which he said will create a curriculum that matches what employers are looking for. He also said plans for the college include research tracking graduates’ earnings after graduation to see whether they have better-paying jobs.

“While this is new, and it certainly makes our job harder, I think we have a lot of experience pioneering a new way to deliver education in California,” Oakley said.

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