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California Shifts the Ground Under Higher Education

California is 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. Today the state Senate’s president pro tem, Darrell Steinberg, will announce a bill 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 education.

Nearly half a million students are on waiting lists for basic courses in California’s public colleges, increasing the cost and duration of college and reducing the number of students who go on to earn degrees. This is a human tragedy and a policy failure on an enormous scale.

Under the proposed plan, wait-listed 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 (which also authorized free, open textbooks). Students would have to take proctored, in-person exams to pass the courses. Public colleges and universities in California would be required to accept those courses for credit.

It seems common-sensical, and it is. But the bill represents a big 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, or 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 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 implied by that designation. This change is consistent with the policy ideas put forth by President Obama in his State of the Union address, as well as by Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, in the Republicans’ response.

Second, it represents state lawmakers’ taking long-overdue responsibility for the crucial 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 be seamlessly transferable to others in the state—particularly one like California, which forces large 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. A college’s 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 courses certified by the American Council on Education—Straighterline offers more than 50 of them—plus faculty review is a good idea. Limiting the program to wait-listed students means that 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 reordering of long-established regulatory, financial, and institutional arrangements. It’s a move closer to a time when traditional colleges are only a subset of the larger world of higher education

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation.

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