Gov. Brown promotes $100 million online community college but faculty concerns remain

January 26, 2018

Governor Jerry Brown voiced strong support last week during his State of the State address for a new online-only community college saying it wouldn’t detract from existing colleges, but it apparently failed to win over a key faculty critic.

“There are many concerns,” about the online community college, said Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the 11,000-member Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

“There is interest in the faculty to try to reach out to students in the age demographic and beyond,” Lightman told EdSource. “Whether this is the right way to do it is a question.”

Lightman said the faculty organization prefers using some or all of the proposed money to fund online courses offered through an existing Online Education Initiative at the community college system.

Brown’s idea, which he proposes to fund with an initial $120 million in new money, is to create a new central online community college designed to bring workforce training to the estimated 2.5 million adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who have a high school diploma or some college experience but no college degree.

“Even with so many of our students attending college, there are still 2.5 million Californians between 25 and 34 who are in the work force but lack a post-secondary degree or certificate,” Brown said during his eighth and final State of the State address in Sacramento. “These men and women often go out of state and pay high tuition to for-profit institutions to improve their skills and employability. I want to create the California Online College so that these overlooked Californians can get the training they need, conveniently and at very low cost.”

Addressing critics, Brown added, “And this won’t compete with brick and mortar schools or the existing community colleges, or UC or CSU. This is for people out of the workforce, who have no other way. And we want to bring it right to their homes, so they can get ahead like everybody else.”

Voicing strong support for Brown’s proposal, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, California Community Colleges chancellor, in a statement, called the idea “a top priority for the governor and will focus on training toward sub-associate degree credentials through short-term certification courses tailored to working learners who need a flexible, high-quality and affordable learning option. This is a new, modern and necessary approach to make higher education more equitable.”

Oakley added, “With this online college, our 2.5 million stranded workers — aged 25-34 — no longer will be denied a chance for economic mobility simply because they cannot attend a traditional school.”

Brown’s proposal is in the early stages of the budget process. On February 1 the governor will release budget language that will detail his plans. The Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Gov. Brown’s proposal February 8.

Lightman cited several issues with the online college proposal, including one raised by some experts during a fall Community College Board of Governors meeting that the online college is unnecessary because the system has already been developing online education models, including the Online Education Initiative. Begun in 2013, the Online Education Initiative’s goal is to expand and improve online instruction for students. It’s been funded with nearly $57 million in state grants.

The creation of the initiative itself was greeted with some skepticism, in part out of fears it would lead to a standalone online college. A 2014 report from the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges noted that “the Chancellor’s Office [has] given assurances that no such separate college is planned or expected.” Oakley became chancellor of the system in late 2016.

Since then support for the Online Education Initiative increased. The academic senate stated in a resolution last year that efforts like the online initiative should be expanded instead of creating a new online college.

“Our position is to take the proposal and to redirect all or part to the Online Education Initiative (OEI) to work on expanding it to the population that the governor has targeted,” said Lightman.

But a 10 page document issued by the Department of Finance in consultation with Oakley’s office says that current online learning initiatives at the community college system aren’t enough. The document said that “these initiatives by design are not a substitute for comprehensively addressing system-wide barriers needed to effectively serve working Californians” and that supporting “strong outcomes for working adults requires a new approach.”

Lightman said there’s also concern that the students that the governor’s proposal targets will be isolated in an online-only environment. “In the move to be more inclusive for targeting individuals who are not currently enrolled, the proposal actually segregates them by putting them into something that is totally different,” he said.

Oakley described criticism that these students cannot learn online as “inaccurate and, unfortunately, similar to sentiments that historically have led to institutional barriers in education.”

Go here to read Gov. Brown’s full remarks on education in his 2018 State of the State address.


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