Governor Jerry Brown is ramping up his campaign to convince legislators to fund a new, wholly online community college, arguing that millions of working-class Californians will then be able to take skills-building classes.
But not everyone is sold on the idea that more virtual-only classes will solve problems for Californians struggling to access the job training they need to obtain higher-paying work.
And while some current California community college students say they see clear promise in expanding the state's public educational offerings available online, others say they've already struggled to make their experiences in virtual classes match the quality of brick and mortar options.
“For me, I think it would be convenient,” said Tam Luong, a resident of West Covina who works at a leather goods factory in San Dimas.“[Sometimes] you have to work, you don’t have time, and can stay home and take some [classes] online.”
Luong earned her associates degree a decade ago, but decided to work part-time in a nail salon to take care of her young son. She started working in the leather factory about a year ago as her son entered the 11th grade. Her current job is monotonous and she’d like to get a promotion at her company to leave the shop floor.
“Later if my English [gets] better, and I learn more computer [skills], I would like to work in the HR office,” she said.
Luong is taking a ten-week evening class called Essential Office Skills, offered by Mt. San Antonio Community College in West Covina. She'd like to take some of the college's human resources classes.
According to Mt. San Antonio College administrators, the office skills course has helped workers move up in a constantly changing workplace. The class teaches students effective communication in an office setting, reviews the essential computer programs they’ll need to be an office worker, and guides them to write a convincing resume and land a job.
Some of the other 18 students enrolled in this class work in home health care – moving the elderly from beds to wheelchairs – while others have worked in warehouses and retail. Some are retired and others are unemployed.
Cracking the glass ceiling
Their jobs aren’t necessarily low wage, but they lack the growth potential of other professions.
“I enjoy the money,” said Myrna Ortiz of the restaurant server job she’s had for six years. “I don’t enjoy the shifts and the fact that I don’t get any benefits.”
She’s enrolled in this class because she feels like she’s hit a glass ceiling at work.
“There’s no way I can be a manager. Our managers have gone to school, gotten their degrees,” Ortiz said.
As state legislators consider approving the governor’s request to fund the new online college’s start-up costs – estimated at $100 million – and an additional $20 million in yearly operating expenses, some student feedback and research suggests a new online college won’t entirely solve this population’s continuing education needs.
Some of the online college’s strongest supporters are making the case to the public that the costs are justified because the pool of potential students - blue collar workers between the age of 25-34 who have a high school diploma but no college degree - hovers around 2.5 million. The proposal does not include target enrollment for the first year but does propose the first classes should open in the fall of 2019.
All three of California's public college and university systems offer online classes. But none of these higher education systems run a wholly online campus.
Several students in the Essential Office Skills class have taken online classes and their experiences, combined with their experiences taking a class face-to-face, provide an insight into how well – or not – both classes work for students.
“Now after taking online classes, personally I regret that decision," Ortiz said. "Because I can’t concentrate at my house, it’s not as easy.” Additionally, her night shifts at work make it hard for her to get real-time feedback from her instructor.
"I can work at 11 o'clock at night, [and] I'm assuming that's when he's sleeping because he does teach other classes," she said. "And he responds at eight in the morning, and I'm already sleeping or I'm on my way to work."
How online compares to brick and mortar
It’s this kind of juggling of home responsibilities, along with work and class schedules, that contribute to lower pass rates in online classes compared to traditional brick and mortar classes.
“Online learning, it provides access but access is only half the battle," said U.C. Irvine education researcher Di Xu. "They also need to provide sufficient support in order to engage them and help them get through the course."
In a 2016 study she co-authored, Xu found online students passed their classes at a rate three percentage points lower than their peers taking in-person classes.
That study focused on students in Washington state, but California’s top community college administrators said they find a similar gap in this state. Efforts to close that gap will help shape the way the new online college takes form.
“What we want to do in this environment is add that additional mentorship, that additional coaching, that additional support for these individuals to be able to gain access to those skills and demonstrate those skills to their employers,” said Eloy Oakley, the chancellor of the 114 campus California Community College system.
The work so far
His office has funded a research and development project called the Online Education Initiative that began working with campuses in 2014 to create online classes that better engage students in learning and do more to support them with tutoring. That project has helped create online classes that use methods found to get more students to pass classes.
Researchers believe those efforts puts the proposed online college on good footing.
"The community colleges, partly through the efforts of their Online Education Initiative, have been able to increase the use of best practices in online settings and have seen increases in course completion rates in online settings," said Hans Johnson, director of the Higher Education Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
Governor Brown has spoken about the online college in urgent tones that are echoed by Oakley and others. For profit colleges and colleges outside California such as University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, and Arizona State University have been leaving California community colleges in the dust in the online learning arena.
“California is the biggest state of enrollment for all of these colleges,” Oakley said. “We are desperately trying to catch up and the more we wait the further we’re going to fall behind.”
There’s also an urgency among some of the students in the new college’s target population. It’s an urgency that has to do with making sure that the steps they’re taking now will lead to better work.
“[I want to] have a stable position, have stable hours, not to work every weekend, every holiday, because that’s what I do now,” said Myrna Ortiz as she finished a break in Essential Office Skills and returned to the classroom with 18 other students eager to find better work.