As Gov. Jerry Brown works to garner support for his proposed fully online community college, Santa Clarita Valley educational officials questioned if it’s the best use of $120 million, since schools such as College of the Canyons already provide wide-ranging online access.
Currently, thousands of students in the California Community College system are enrolled in online classes through the statewide Online Education Initiative, which provides students with access to online courses at other community colleges to fulfill transfer requirements.
Within the last year, COC offered 819 online course sections and received 22,800 duplicated enrollments in online classes, according to Eric Harnish, the college’s vice president of public information, advocacy and external relations.
“What we’ve found is students will take online classes as a complement to their on-ground classes, so they may be enrolled in two or three on-ground classes and then add a course or two online given the flexibility,” Harnish said.
However, Brown hopes to see students of all ages enrolling in the online community college by fall 2019.
Brown introduced the concept for the 115th community college in his January budget, where he asked the Legislature to approve his proposal for $100 million in one-time funding and $20 million in ongoing funding to develop the independent college district under the state Chancellor’s Office.
Instead of dedicating this large sum of money to a new online community college, some argue the funding could be redirected to local colleges to enhance the Online Education Initiative and reach students who the 114 California Community Colleges are not currently serving.
“I think a question that a lot of people have is: why spend $120 million to create a new state-level program that duplicates what a lot of community colleges are already doing and doing well?” Harnish said. “I think if you look at enrollment in online classes at California Community Colleges, it has increased 50 percent over the past four years. That program is already up and running. The question that people keep asking is: why do we have to reinvent the wheel?”
Brown, California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley and other state leaders, argue that this program will reach a different group of adult learners who cannot access the traditional community college format due to time and prior commitments.
“It’s important because there are people 25, 30, 35 or older that are in the workforce that just have a high school degree and don’t have the skills they really need to improve their income and improve their job prospects,” Brown said during his budget presentation. “This is targeted to several million people who could upgrade their skills by taking online courses and maintain their employment.”
The online college would also remove many of the resources students in the Online Education Initiative currently access at local community colleges, like the free tutoring at the COC Learning Center.
“In talking with colleagues at other colleges, especially some of those at more rural-serving areas, they find that students in their local areas will enroll in an online course, but they will come to the campus to use the campus computer lab to do their online course work there due to lack of computers or lack of reliable internet,” Harnish said. “It reinforces that idea that students are drawn to their own local institution, because they know that’s where they can find the supports and services they need to be successful in their courses.”
With an independent board of trustees, the online community college could have no connections to local college campuses as its members will be appointed by the Legislature and governor.
And before the board is established in 2025, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors will serve as the community college district’s governing board as it sets policies and shapes the college’s direction.
“I think the issue is how does this work and how do you run a statewide initiative and best meet the needs of students in places like Santa Clarita or Fresno or Shasta?” Harnish said. “I think that’s one of the strengths of the community colleges system is you have 114 campuses that are located throughout the state that are governed by locally elected boards and trustees dedicated to their community and focused on meeting their individualized needs. They know what their students need best.”
CALmatters contributed to this report.
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_