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California's Groundbreaking State Online Higher Education Plan

Published:  March 12, 2013

California is currently home to two of the most important things happening in higher education, one good, one bad. The good thing is the rapid advancement of cheap and free online courses offered by companies like Udacity and Coursera. The bad thing is the catastrophic failure of California lawmakers to provide enough money to support basic access to foundational courses at community colleges. Tomorrow, California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg will announce a plan that essentially tries to use the one to fix the other. This groundbreaking initiative has broad implications for the nature, financing, and regulation of higher learning.

As of today nearly half a million students are on waiting lists for basic courses in California’s public higher education system, increasing the cost and duration of college and reducing the number of students who ultimately earn degrees. This is a human tragedy and a policy failure on a massive scale. Under the plan, waitlisted students would be able to take online classes that have been approved by California’s Open Education Resources Council, a faculty-led body that was created by recent Steinberg-sponsored legislation creating free open textbooks. ACE certification would be a point in course's favor. Students would have to take in-person proctored exams to pass the courses. Public colleges and universities in California would be required to accept those courses for credit.

It seems commonsensical, and it is. But the policy represents a huge departure from standard policy arrangements in two important ways. First, the organizations providing the courses would not have to be accredited colleges and universities. They could be MOOCs, but also low-cost course providers like Straighterline, or perhaps a venture led by textbook companies whose offerings increasingly blur the distinction between textbook and course. This would represent a major breach in the regulatory wall that has long kept credit-granting privileges and public subsidies confined to organizations that have been certified as colleges by other colleges, with all of the cultural and financial structures that designation implies. This idea is very consistent with the policy ideas put forth by President Obama in his State of the Union last month, as well as by Senator Marco Rubio in the SOTU response.

Second, it represents state lawmakers taking long-overdue responsibility for the critical issue of credit transfer. It’s in the best interests of taxpayers and students for credits earned at one public higher education institution in a state to seamlessly transfer to other higher education institutions in the state -- particularly a state like California, which forces huge numbers of students to begin their path toward a bachelor’s degree in a community college. The best interests of individual colleges, by contrast, may be different. Not accepting a transferred course means the student has to take, and pay for, that course again.

None of this should assume away the question of quality control. Not all online courses are good enough, which is why starting with ACE-certified courses--Straighterline offers more than 50 of them--plus faculty review is a good idea. Limiting the program to waitlisted students means nobody is being displaced on the labor side of things in the short term. In the long run, however, this kind of plan represents an undeniable re-ordering of long-established regulatory, financial and institutional arrangements, moving closer to a world where traditional colleges are only a subset of the larger world of higher education.

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