Brown’s online college idea opens doors for workers. Don’t let lobbyists strangle it

California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley speaks during a meeting of the University of California Board of Regents in San Francisco on Jan. 24, 2018.
California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley speaks during a meeting of the University of California Board of Regents in San Francisco on Jan. 24, 2018. AP

Predictably, Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to spend $100 million to start an online community college is causing great consternation among some legislators and lobbyists.

Representatives of teachers’ unions and some of their Democratic allies in the Legislature worry that faculty who teach online courses might operate outside unions. Some warn online classes might cannibalize students from California’s 114 existing community colleges.

The technology might not work and there will be cost overruns, they worry. Students might fail, and would miss out on the full college experience by not becoming enriched by interactions with wise teachers and fellow students.

All that is possible, although Brown is hardly anti-union and his aides pledge that online faculty in what would be the 115th California community college would be full dues paying union members.

Legislators have an obligation to question and shape the governor’s proposal, a signature piece of his final budget. But they should not strangle it.

California lawmakers must embrace online education even as they expand access to existing community colleges and the California State University and University of California systems. Online education and brick and mortar campuses are not mutually exclusive. They ought to help one another thrive, for the good of the students they serve.

As outlined by Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley in an interview with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board and during a four-hour Senate budget oversight hearing, Brown seeks an initial investment of $100 million, plus $20 million a year, with enrollment to begin next year. The expenditure would be a fraction of the $78.3 billion that is earmarked for public schools and community colleges in the coming fiscal year.

The online college would not provide full degrees, at least not initially. Rather, the 115th community college would offer Californians a chance to gain new skills in bursts of education to be consumed as their time permits.

Workers seeking to better themselves might wait until their kids are in bed to log on. They might take courses to learn management techniques so they can gain promotions to become supervisors. They might spend weekend hours learning to code, or brushing up on language skills to be positioned to get that next job.

Online education would not replace necessary hands-on learning. But it would supplement so that workers could become qualified for better jobs in electronics, retail, building trades, health care and other fields. Unions, Oakley said, would be vital to helping identify relevant course work.

The prime audience would be 2.5 million working Californians, 34 or younger, 49 percent of whom are Latinos and 31 percent of whom are white, with the remainder Asian and African American. Most have obligations and cannot spend hours on a campus, but need new or different skills so they can keep up with changing workplace demands.

“We have to find a better way to reach them,” Oakley said at the Senate hearing last week.

While most California public colleges, including community colleges, offer some online classes, institutions from outside California regularly poach California students and collect their tuition. Arizona State University, for one, provides courses for 10,000 Californians, at a cost of $490 per credit and more.

No doubt, ASU teachers provide high quality course work. But a California community college teacher could teach as well, and California charges $46 for a community college credit.

Too often, workers seeking to better themselves turn to for-profit colleges, and far too many of those promise far more than they deliver. As of 2015, some 91,641 Californians were taking online courses offered by for-profit colleges, according to the Distance Education State Almanac for 2017 by Babson Survey Research Group.

One company, Ashford University, a for-profit college based in San Diego, enrolled 42,046 Californians, Babson reports. In November, Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued Ashford and its parent, Bridgepoint Education, alleging the company misled students about its tuition costs and offered little of value in return for the $60,390 it charges for a bachelor’s degree. Ashford denies wrongdoing.

Brown’s attempt to create an online community college that would compete with for-profit colleges comes as the President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, rolls back Obama administration efforts to rein in for-profit colleges. And as reported by Inside Higher Education, the Brookings Institution published an analysis showing students entering for-profit colleges end up being worse off economically than if they had never enrolled.

Critics of the Brown and Oakley proposal say a consortium of community colleges could provide a high quality online program. Perhaps that’s true. There’s also a chance existing colleges would treat the online college like an unwanted stepchild.

Legislators should help shape Brown’s proposal. They also should insist on regular review. If the online college fails to produce results after a period of years, a future Legislature could kill it. But this Legislature ought to be open to the possibility that it will work.

For-profit companies that over-promise would be among the losers. More importantly, the winners would be working Californians seeking to better themselves.