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UC needs to prioritize online education

A recent article in The Sacramento Bee noted that University of California President Janet Napolitano wants to expand the UC Davis campus into Sacramento. The plan is touted as providing jobs and other economic benefits for Sacramento while helping to relieve overcrowding on the UC Davis campus.

It’s appropriate to ask whether expanding UC Davis into Sacramento makes financial sense. The answer is that it’s short-sighted of higher education administrators to build brick-and-mortar facilities when they should instead be investing our limited tax dollars on technology, specifically online education.

The most inefficient part of higher education is a campus that is only open 12 hours a day, four and a half days a week, particularly in expensive downtown Sacramento. The UC system should be using its enormous resources to educate the world through the internet, which is the greatest information resource the world has ever known.

The University of California, under Napolitano’s leadership, is taking baby steps when it should be making strides into the 21st century of educational innovation.

In 2013 the Little Hoover Commission issued a report, “A New Plan for a New Economy: Reimagining Higher Education.” It notes that in the wake of the Great Recession in which state government spending was slashed for higher education, “California is recovering, but it must change its model for higher education if it hopes to meet the needs of a growing population and provide workers with the skills to compete in the world of the 21st century.

“The commission found that online education has enormous potential to expand the reach of public higher education, if used in a manner that benefits students. California’s colleges and universities already are using online courses, though they have yet to aggressively engage online education in ways that could help more students complete their programs on time and transfer course credits between systems.”

One of the reasons for not being more aggressive in rolling out online education is opposition by faculty, which must approve each course. “This policy, while understandable, causes substantial delay and, if continued, will ensure that California will become a follower rather than a leader in development of online higher education,” the report said.

Fortunately, the online effort is being pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown with the aid of increased funding, and gains are being made, particularly in the community college and CSU systems. The UC system, however, has lagged behind.

Only 49 online classes are now available for UC students. Just 20 classes are offered for non-UC students, 13 of which are closed to new enrollees. If you are lucky enough to get in to one of the seven remaining non-UC online classes, the cost can be prohibitive. Most classes cost at least $1,400 for a two-month course with the highest topping out at $2,625 for a four-month course.

Is this the best we can do? The governor’s $179.45 billion budget proposal for the 2017-18 fiscal year devotes $31.9 billion for higher education. Just a small fraction of that goes to online education, which is why Brown is urging higher education officials to be more penny-wise and less pound-foolish.

A key to achieving that is to put less money into 19th- and 20th-century brick-and-mortar education facilities and more money into innovative, cost-effective 21st-century modes of learning as exemplified by free education websites such as Khan Academy and TED Talks.

Good leadership demands looking beyond the next 18 months. The future for the University of California appears likely to include empty buildings worth hundreds of millions of dollars on our University of California campuses. They can do much better.

Matt Rexroad is a Yolo County supervisor. He can be contacted at matt@rexroad.com.

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