Online-only community colleges work, but only in theory

Justus Ross/HIGHLANDER

We have heard the horror stories: Students attend their local community college, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and planning to bolt after two years. Then, five years later, they’re still around, struggling to get into classes they need to graduate. It is part of the trade-off of attending a two-year community college — sure, the ease of admission and financial cost are excellent, but the burdens of impacted classes and not being able to fill necessary requirements have severely delayed students’ paths to getting the credentials needed for their career.

This is an issue Governor Jerry Brown aims to fix with his latest proposal to launch California’s first fully online public community college by fall 2019. The move, which was proposed in the 2018-19 budget plan, is Brown’s effort to improve economic mobility with a focus on providing short-term credential programs for fields such as advanced manufacturing, healthcare and child development. For Brown, online courses offer a more accessible and cost effective alternative to traditional college campuses, and his proposal, in his words, “is targeted to several million people who can upgrade their skills by taking online courses and maintaining their employment.” In truth, the proposal is short-changing prospective students, posing as opportunity but disregarding the challenges of online college programs.

What seems to be ignored in Brown’s proposed spending of a whopping $120 million to start this program is this: Online community colleges are not working. A 2013 study conducted of more than 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington State by scholars at Teachers College, Columbia University found that that online students’ performance suffered across the board, with a considerable gap in persistence — or, ability to complete their courses — between online and face-to-face learners. This was similarly shown in 2015 by a study conducted by UC Davis researchers, which discovered that online courses yielded lower grades and course completion rates than those same courses did in a regular classroom setting.

An online-only program also threatens to severely undercut the revenue from existing four-year and two-year universities, a fear that has been expressed privately by both teachers union leaders and college officials, according to the LA Times. A look at the budget proposal itself shows a shift in the state’s priorities, as Brown earmarked a 6.5 percent increase in community college revenue from general funds and property taxes while proposing an increase of 3 percent for the University of California and Cal State University, which is down from 4 percent in each of the last few years.

Online classes carry their own unique set of burdens and, while they have made progress (Nearly two-thirds of online students completed their courses in 2015-16, compared with just over half a decade prior, per the LA Times), community college officials themselves have acknowledged that their online system is nowhere near a finished product. So why the hurry here? Yes, there is an obvious need to improve accessibility of community college courses and it is important to acknowledge the flexibility and cost cutting that online programs provide for students, particularly the working adults and parents whom this proposal targets. Though, it seems more prudent to invest $120 million into expanding and enhancing existing community colleges’ online capacities than to create an entirely new program founded on a currently unpolished system.

It isn’t as if Brown hasn’t tried this before. In 2013, a Brown-initiated online pilot at San Jose State University was scrapped in the same year after half of the students failed to pass their final exams. The governor’s flawed logic behind this most recent proposal could reap similarly failed results. To create an entirely independent community community college that offers only online courses does a disservice to not only the college programs already in place, but to students who may wrongly view online courses as a shortcut through the college system.

As Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, told the LA Times, “What makes education really come alive for students is interaction with instructors and other students … Online is not a good approach. Students hurt the worst are at the lower end of the economic spectrum. They tend to drop out of online courses at a higher rate. The idea that it’s beneficial to them flies in the face of our experience.” This makes sense; consider the benefits of visiting your professor during office hours, speaking with them directly following instruction and collaborating with peers face-to-face — these are privileges not as readily available in an online setting.

The notion of online-only courses is excellent in theory: It provides accessibility and availability for students who may not otherwise be able to attend courses in-person and offers easier opportunity for students to get their necessary credentials in two years’ time without being burdened by impacted courses. Though, what Brown’s proposal works best as is exactly that, a concept not yet ready to be put into practice. As technological capabilities advance and campuses grow, it is important for colleges to adapt and find sustainable alternatives for prospective students who wouldn’t otherwise be served by the present structure. However, it is misguided to take this huge of a leap forward instead of focusing more keenly on fixing the problems of existing online programs.

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