Online courses can help community college students succeed

Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource

While California is used to earthquakes and has been preparing for the Big One for decades, the state was caught off guard by the pandemic earthquake that rocked our state in March 2020. Although the government response has been quick and well funded, one of the most vital establishments — community colleges — are still recovering.

Enrollment at two-year colleges in California has fallen by more than 300,000 over the past two years. A disproportionate number of those who left were low-income students of color. These departures have worsened an already low percentage of students earning an AA degree or a career education degree.

Before Covid, community colleges did progress on completion rates and the reduction of equity gaps. A new Vision for success and funding formula award-winning colleges that have increased the number of students graduating with a degree or certificate in a timely manner, or improved outcomes for disadvantaged students and areas of the state with low academic achievement.

When the coronavirus shut down in-person classes, however, California Community Colleges (CCCs) were ill-equipped to adapt to the new environment.

Since 2014, the state has provided funding to colleges that offered online classes to students across the state. As of spring 2020, the majority of colleges were participating, but relatively few courses were offered. Colleges and professors made a heroic effort to move immediately to online classes, but the lack of expertise and preparation caused major disruption.

Research undertaken at the start of the pandemic indicates that students least prepared for college struggled to make the transition. Some did not have reliable Internet access or computers. Others simply couldn’t adapt to the unfamiliar online format or missed the in-person interactions on campus.

Two years later, colleges have dramatically improved their online offerings. State and federal investments in broadband for low-income and rural areas are also helpful. A CIPP study found that internet access for low-income people increased from 60% to 70% in California from spring 2020 to spring 2021, but 41% still lacked full internet and device access to educational purposes.

To ensure continued progress, new state and federal funding must ensure that low-income households have broadband access and the means to pay for Internet service.

More broadly, the Covid earthquake has permanently fractured the landscape of American society. Many middle- and upper-income people are working from home, while others, often people of color, continue to perform low-wage in-person jobs.

While the sudden shift to online education has been difficult for community college students, it’s also creating new opportunities, especially for those working outside the home. Their job, family obligations, or health issues may limit their ability to attend campus regularly. Child care, travel and parking costs can aggravate their precarious financial situation.

In fact, a fall 2021 survey by the Office of the Chancellor of Community Colleges found that less than a quarter of students of all ethnicities preferred in-person classes only. A majority wanted hybrid options and about 28% wanted all online courses.

Additionally, the Chancellor’s Office reports that some older students have taken more units since online courses have become widely available and are completing their studies faster.

To accelerate this progress, online courses must be engaging and easily accessible, with opportunities to interact directly with professors and students in the classroom. Counseling and health services should be upgraded to ensure equal access for online students.

California Universities and California State Universities could also be part of the solution by offering more online degrees. Many are at capacity and rejecting qualified community college graduates. The number of transfers refused at the CSU quintupled from 2009 to 2019.

Even with funding to expand enrollment at UC and CSU in the governor’s new budget review, many community college students who prefer to attend a university closer to home will be turned away.

Meanwhile, competitors have swept away, with western governors, Arizona State and others offering easy-to-access transfers to respectable online licensing programs. Community colleges welcome institutions that provide more options for their graduates, but California universities are missing an opportunity to educate more students without costly investments in facilities.

More worryingly, for-profit colleges aggressively target transfer students to California, often leaving them with large debt and a degree of dubious worth if they graduate.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s May Budget revision Judiciously provides $125 million in annual funding to improve community college capacity for online education, plus $750 million in block grants and $100 million for technology infrastructure.

The stage is set for colleges to take advantage of the current revenue boom and ensure students who prefer online courses have easy access to technology, an effective curriculum, and the support they need to succeed. It’s time to act now, before the next Big One arrives.


Tom Epstein is a member and former president of California Community College Board of Governors. This comment reflects his personal opinion and not the official position of the Council.

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