D’Marcus Frost applies for jobs at the Greater Sacramento Urban League. Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed online community college targets people like the League’s clients—working adults with high school diplomas but not college degrees. Photo by Max Whittaker

A Community College Online?

Gov. Brown’s plan re-imagines cyber learning, but faces skeptics

Back CalMatters Feb 8, 2018 By Felicia Mello

Laticia Middleton perches in front of a computer at the Greater Sacramento Urban League’s job center, scanning employment ads. At 30, with two children, a high school diploma and a job at a call center, Middleton is the kind of student Gov. Jerry Brown has in mind as he pushes for a new online community college.

The thing is, Middleton has tried online education before—and the results were less than stellar. Two years ago, she signed up for virtual business classes through De Anza College, a state community college in Cupertino. But when a question came up about her enrollment, Middleton said, she couldn’t find a real person to talk to.

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“Trying to get in touch with them was such a headache,” she recalled. “It’s like, ‘hey, call this number,’ and then no one answers.” Discouraged, and busy with a newborn son, Middleton just dropped out.

Her story illustrates the challenges Brown faces as he tries to convince the Legislature and a skeptical community college faculty that online education is the key to reaching the 2.5 million Californians aged 25 to 34 who graduated from high school but lack a college degree.

With tens of thousands of Californians turning to private and out-of-state schools for distance learning, Brown and Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley say they want to provide an affordable, high-quality option for busy adults to gain skills that will help them in the labor market. They’re asking the Legislature to approve $100 million in startup funds and $20 million in ongoing annual costs for an independent college district that would start enrolling students in fall 2019.

Designed in collaboration with employers and labor unions, the new college’s curriculum would feature short courses leading to certificates or badges that carry value in high-demand industries like health care, child care, information technology and manufacturing. Students could learn at their own pace, would be eligible for state financial aid and might even be able to pay a flat fee to access unlimited courses.

“What we’re talking about doing is adopting a completely different educational delivery model that allows for short-term learning that does not follow the traditional academic calendar and does not focus on associate degree and transfer-level courses,” said Oakley. “We want to break down the content already available in the colleges and put it in a format where we can reach working adults.”

But some faculty groups have raised concerns that the plan takes a group of students least prepared to succeed online and shunts them off into a virtual ghetto, while their transfer-bound peers enjoy the benefits of face-to-face interaction with instructors. They say the funds should instead be used to bolster the community colleges’ Online Education Initiative, aimed at increasing the quality and accessibility of online courses at the system’s existing 114 colleges.

“In developing a structure in the name of being inclusive, are we actually segregating these students?” asked Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. The strength of the community colleges, said Lightman, lies in their combination of basic skills, vocational education and courses that prepare students for transfer to a four-year school—all under one roof.

“You can call this whatever you want, but it’s not a community college,” Lightman said.

Oakley insists the online college would provide one more doorway for working adults who are currently shut out.

“We are not in any way, shape or form interested in creating terminal credentials,” Oakley said. “We want these individuals to have the opportunity to continue to learn and enter one of our other 114 colleges so they can achieve an associate’s degree or transfer.”

Nearly 4,000 of the California Community Colleges’ instructors—about 14 percent—teach courses online.

In interviews, professors at several community colleges said online classes provide an important option for students with busy schedules, but can exacerbate differences in performance between highly disciplined students and those who need more support to succeed. Students are also more likely to withdraw from online classes early on, they said, a phenomenon not captured in the system’s statistics on completion rates.

Jennifer Paris, an assistant professor of early childhood education at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, has been teaching online for eight years. Online discussions can be surprisingly lively, she said, involving students who would be too shy to speak up in a traditional class.

But online classes may work better for theoretical subjects.

“In our infant child care class, they learn how to change diapers,” Paris said. “How do you assess that online?”

A successful online class, Paris said, requires connecting with students. “You need a lot of announcements, warm feedback when you’re grading. You have to figure out how to remind them that there’s a human being behind everything they’re seeing on their screen.”

Research from the Public Policy Institute of California backs up that point. Its review of the Community Colleges’ existing online offerings found that in the most successful courses, students had frequent contact with the instructors and with each other, and professors proactively reached out to students who seemed to be struggling.

It’s exactly that kind of human interaction that can sometimes be missing from online-only colleges. A federal audit last fall of Western Governors University found that the majority of the non-profit virtual school’s courses did not involve “regular and substantive interaction” between students and instructors. It called for the Salt Lake City-based university to return more than $700 million in federal financial aid.

The consultants that helped design WGU, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, have been heavily involved in drafting Gov. Brown’s proposal.

Brown’s last high-profile online education initiative, a 2013 partnership between San Jose State University and the for-profit platform Udacity, faltered after initial results showed that the majority of students in the pilot math courses were failing.

Yet there’s evidence that online instructional techniques have improved since then. The community college system’s Online Education Initiative has trained hundreds of teachers in best practices for teaching online. The gap in student success rates between face-to-face and online classes in the past decade narrowed from 12 percent to 5 percent, according to the chancellor’s office.

If the online community college moves forward, the chancellor’s office plans to provide 24-hour tutoring services and partner with community organizations to provide computer and broadband access for students who lack them.

That’s welcome news to Kevin Daniel, who oversees programming at the Greater Sacramento Urban League, including the job center. He’s seen some of the center’s clients opt for for-profit technical schools, exiting with heavy debt burdens and few job prospects.

A public option could help, but right now “the population that comes into our facility aren’t quite ready,” to study online, he said. While about 70 percent possess high school diplomas, they are often accessing the internet via cell phones, or computers with antiquated operating systems, he said.

“You have to be mindful that there’s still a digital divide,” added the League’s President, Cassandra Jennings. “You can’t be successful until you address that.”

The chancellor’s office would have plenty of latitude to address those questions. As written, the governor’s proposal calls for a board of trustees for the new college district to be established by 2025. Until then, much of the authority to shape the college’s direction would likely lie with the chancellor or a CEO he appoints, with the supervision of the statewide board of governors. District trustees would ultimately be appointed by the governor and the Legislature, rather than elected by voters like the trustees in the system’s existing districts.

The proposal also calls for collective bargaining with employees only “as the college becomes more established”—a phrase that is likely to become a sticking point with faculty unions.

The plan now moves to the Legislature. If approved, California could soon become a testing ground for which online education strategies provide new opportunities for working adults—and which leave them falling further behind.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. This story was done with support from the College Futures Foundation.