California Governor Envisions a New Online Community College

Image of CA Govenor Brown

CA Governor Brown

Governor Jerry Brown proposed a new community college that would be online, competency-based, offer sub-associate credentials, and focused on serving working learners. The idea was included in his budget request that he delivered to the California State Assembly yesterday.

From the website for the initiative describing the problem being solved and the proposed solution:

Economic insecurity is expected to increase over the next decade. 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…Millions of Californians would benefit from sub-associate degree credentials or short bursts of additional training to move ahead in today’s economy. However, traditional higher education is not accessible for these working learners.

The California Community Colleges is responding with an online community college to provide skills and credentials working learners need to improve their social and economic mobility and move our state forward. This new, competency-based online college will be unlike any other public online education platform and will focus predominately on sub-associate degree credentials of value tailored to the needs of these working learners.

Van Ton-Quinlivan, Executive Vice Chancellor, Workforce and Digital Futures for the California Community College System told me that: “The R&D unit being established as part of this venture will build our collective use of learning science, data science, and behavioral science in shaping educational strategies that meet adults where they are.”

How Was the Proposal Developed?

Governor Brown has a recent history of challenging the three higher education systems in his state to serve more students and to be more innovative. Resulting investments have led to California Community Colleges’ Online Education Initiative and efforts of the California State University to support online learners.outline of state of california in colorful dots

Brown wanted more. Unlike a few other examples that I can think of in which politicians floated half-baked ideas, this idea was researched. A Working Group represented key constituents within the colleges, the system, and the state’s Departments of Labor and Finance. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) “worked with the system stakeholders and online thought leaders to develop ‘Report on Options for an Online, Statewide Community College’ that was delivered to the governor.”

The Working Group presented the Governor with options including an institution that would assume the duties on its own or a partnership of institutions that would share the duties. The Governor favored creating a new institution.

Additional Considerations for Accreditation, Organization, and Learning

The Online Community College Proposal states that the institution will:

  • Seek “accreditation and meet requirements for students to become eligible for federal financial aid and state financial aid.”
  • Not compete with existing colleges because it is focusing on students who “are not currently accessing higher education” and “students who are unable to access or obtain an education in a traditional setting.”
  • Hire its own faculty and will transition to collective bargaining.
  • Avoid duplicating existing programs by leveraging existing online education efforts (such as the Online Education Initiative mentioned previously) already available within the system.

Sally Johnstone, President of NCHEMS told me that: “The design of the new statewide community college is based on everything we know and could find about the needs of working Californians who will require new skills and knowledge to fulfill evolving workforce demands. This college will be able to incorporate the latest information from the field of learning science to offer these students engaging and convenient ways to acquire relevant knowledge for life-long careers.”

Not Surprisingly, Questions Remain

As with any new venture, there are more questions than factsblack and red question marks. There are many details to work out.

For example, via Twitter Sean Gallagher (Founder and Executive Director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, and Executive Professor of Educational Policy) asked me “And why can’t the existing CA community colleges meet the need? I’m assuming the challenge is governance, financial model, faculty buy-in?”

I think he hit on some real challenges that might be more easily overcome with a new entity. In my opinion additional factors may be capacity (the existing colleges have had trouble keeping apace with the growing population) and the laser-focus on workforce development (which has become a favorite issue with state legislators everywhere).

Additionally, I think it is an issue about an institution’s ability to focus. I worry when a college adds a major new effort that may be the third…or eighth…or sixteenth most important item in their mission. There are other states that have adult and/or online focused institutions and they have been stellar in serving that goal. Meanwhile, I’ve worked on projects that were short-term priorities for more traditional institutions and those efforts have gone by the wayside. An example is Kentucky’s Commonwealth College, which I believe has been whittled down to nothing.

It will be fascinating to watch the press, the politics, and the progress of this idea. More to come!

What do you think? Share your comments below.

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Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies  @russpoulin
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  1. Kelvin Bentley
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 10:49 am | Permalink | Reply

    I love the idea that CA is looking to develop a fully online community college. There really isn’t such a model in place other than Rio Salado which still has a physical presence within the Maricopa CC district. I would like CA to look to what is going on within the University of Arkansas system in terms of their work to create eVersity. This will be the system’s fully online university and they are currently seeking accreditation through DEAC. Perhaps CA can seek accreditation in the same way so that it can be achieved within 2-4 years and not 6 as the proposal indicates. I hope that each of our states pays close attention to the work CA is doing. My hope is that we will take a harder look at online learning initiatives and find better ways to support them and increase their ability to meet the needs of students. Online education for 2- and 4-year institutions still feels like a “bolt-on” initiative too often shackled by existing on-campus processes and systems. CA’s efforts reminds us that perhaps its time we need to rethink how we offer and support online education moving forward.

  2. Posted January 11, 2018 at 10:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’m happy to see that the CCC Online College Whitepaper and Fact Sheet includes Open Educational Resources as a strategy to reduce the cost of attendance for students. “Zero Textbook Cost Degrees and Open Educational Resources (OER). The Zero Textbook Cost Degrees program’s goal is to reduce the cost of education for students by developing, implementing, and sustaining Zero Textbook Cost Degree pathways. Each of the courses in these pathways will have alternative instructional materials and methodology that are at zero cost.” A large-scale OER initiative will require its own White Paper/Concept Note and a comprehensive implementation and training plan to be successful. I’m very interested to see details of the many separate initiatives embedded in Gov. Brown’s plan.

  3. burcksmith
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 8:29 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hard to see how this doesn’t become a lot of money with a lot of activity with limited outcomes. Students either get college credentials (in which case this competes with colleges) or non-college credentials (in which case this competes with the non-college sector). As plans get more concrete, if it looks like the former then the scope, organization and execution will be hamstrung to protect colleges who are the ones responsible for organizing the initiative. If the latter, then the primary challenge remains getting employers to value non-college credentials. It’s hard to see the CA CC system doing a better job of this than the non-college sector has already done and is doing. On top of all of this, whatever CBE program is developed will certainly resemble existing providers like WGU and others that are already much larger, better organized, less constrained by politics and bureaucracy and more experienced. I hope to be proven wrong, but the market dynamics don’t lend themselves to the CA CC system being the ones to solve the problem of non-college credentialing.

  4. HarryKeller
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 8:10 am | Permalink | Reply

    How will they meet science requirements? Professors tend to deprecate simulations. Lab kits cost far too much for this sort of program. Will CA finally look at online science lessons with real experiments and hands-on measurement as a solution?

  5. Posted January 11, 2018 at 7:06 am | Permalink | Reply

    It does not surprise me, after reading much on CA system schools and on delays in joining SARA, that CA would seek internal means to help (its) students. I would like to know what is really meant by “hire its own faculty” when academic approval, [potential] out-of-state hiring, and credentials are such thorny issues today.

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