California headed for its first fully online community college

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The latest budget proposal released by California Gov. Jerry Brown calls for a significant addition to the nation’s largest community college system: A fully online California community college.

California’s community colleges serve 2.1 million students, or roughly one-quarter of all community college students in the nation. But there are currently more than 2.5 million working Californians who have only a high school diploma, some college credits and limited access to higher education that is needed to advance in the workplace, according to census figures cited by the state. Most of them are Hispanics and women between the ages of 25 and 34. Another 6.2 million Californians between 35 and 65 years old have only a high school diploma.

The proposal calls for an increase of $100 million in one-time funding and $20 million in ongoing funding to establish a fully online community college. Funding for the online college would be supported under Proposition 98 — the 1988 amendment to the state constitution that sets the formula for K-12 and community college spending.

The new, competency-based online college will focus predominately on sub-associate-degree credentials of value tailored to the needs of working learners who cannot quit their jobs to get the education they need to advance in their careers.

According to a fact sheet accompanying the proposal, the one-time costs will include the design, development and investment in the technological infrastructure (including student-centered support systems and mobile-friendly technology), seeking and securing accreditation, the design and evaluation of demonstration pilots and establishing competency -based and prior learning assessments. The ongoing costs will support the recurring licensing and maintenance of technology, professional development and training, the continuous assessment of student program pathways, and salaries paid to college staff and faculty.

“A critical part of the college’s efforts will be ensuring working students have the support they need to succeed in their programs,” the budget proposal states. “The online college’s initial focus will be collating and developing quality content and programs that provide vocational training, career advancement opportunities, and credentialing for careers in child development, the service sector, advanced manufacturing, healthcare, and in-home supportive services, among other areas.”

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley immediately announced full support for Brown’s proposal.

“California community colleges are serving 2.1 million students each year, but we are still not meeting the needs of 2.5 million others who, for a variety of reasons, cannot attend classes on our campuses,” Oakley said. “It’s our responsibility to bring the campus to them, and we can do that through a fully online college.”

Board of Governors President Cecilia V. Estolano said Brown’s proposal also aligns with the California Community Colleges’ recently adopted Vision for Success and its goal of better serving working adults looking for nontraditional approaches to boosting their job skills.

“While California’s 114 community colleges offer the most economical options for higher education and career training in the country, many working adults are looking for more online opportunities that fit into their schedule,” Estolano said.

Through partnerships with employers, industry sectors and organized labor, the online community college would offer the skills that match the jobs that employers are looking to fill. The college would create program pathways to include vocational training, upskilling and credentialing support for career education jobs in growing industries.

By 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the U.S. will require a college credential, according to estimates by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Artificial intelligence, the rise of the gig economy and automation are changing the future of work and the skillsets needed to succeed.

Brown’s proposal has also garnered support from a wide spectrum of industry leaders.

“Online education with high-touch support is the only way to educate the 500,000 health care workers needed in the next 10 years,” said Rebecca Miller, workforce director for SEIU United Health Care Workers. “The future of care delivery demands that providers be digitally fluent and adapt quickly to new technologies. Online education is long overdue for working adults.”

Mark Baldassare, President and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, said California must expand access to college to improve the lives of its residents and meet the challenges of the future economy. “In a state known for innovation and world-class higher education, the community college system is ideally situated to pioneer and rigorously evaluate this concept of online education,” he said.

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