CFA weighs in on the groundswell of online higher ed bills

Several bills related to online education in California’s public colleges and universities have been introduced in the legislature this year.

Some examples include:

  • Assembly Bill 386 (Marc Levine, D-San Rafael) – Allows any student within the CSU System to take an online course on any other campus, with some restrictions.
  • Assembly Bill 387 (Levine) – Mandates 10% of courses at the three higher education segments be placed online.
  • Assembly Bill 1306 (Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita) – Would establishes a New University of California as the fourth higher education segment. The New University will provide no instruction, but shall issue college credit, baccalaureate and associate degrees to any person capable of passing examinations.
  • Senate Bill 520 (Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento ) – Directs the three higher education segments to identify the 50 most “bottlenecked” courses, creates a statewide pool of these classes, after a standardized review and approval process allows private vendors to offer these classes for credit. 

While these bills are still in the initial stages of development and consideration, CFA is very concerned about the impact on students, faculty and quality education and the unintended consequences of one-size-fits-all legislation.

While CFA believes that online education can be a successful mode of instruction for some students and while we wholeheartedly support the goal of expanding access to higher education in California, we have deep concerns about some proposed legislative solutions that mandate online instruction or call for blanket standardization of curriculum across a variety of institutions.

CFA also fundamentally rejects the belief that after years of deep cuts in state support for the CSU the solution to restoring the greatness of the system lies in throwing open the doors to private vendors and privatizing operations. CFA fought for additional revenue and the voters of California overwhelming supported those efforts. In a post-Prop 30 world, the focus should be on restoring funding to the CSU and focusing on the core mission of education, not turning it into an experiment with student success hanging in the balance.

We believe that it is a strength of our system that the 23 campuses of the CSU (and the campuses of the UC and CC systems as well) each offer rich and unique educational experiences that are shaped by the needs of students on that particular campus and by the needs of the community surrounding the campus.  Legislation that seeks to create curricular uniformity across all campuses puts the current educational diversity that reflects our social diversity at risk.  Such legislation would also make it more difficult for campuses to foster student success by tailoring curriculum (sequences of courses, for instance) to the educational backgrounds of students on that campus.

We also firmly believe that affordability and quality are critical to any meaningful notion of access. Students in public higher education institutions should not be required to pay additional costs to take a course (whether online or in-person) that is required to graduate.

Students must also be assured that the courses they take will be taught using a mode of instruction that offers them their greatest chance of success. Research on student success in online education clearly indicates that this mode of instruction is not for everyone and not ideal for many, many students it is our mission to educate.

While we know that partnering with others outside the CSU can potentially provide benefits to students, handing off the core function of educating CSU students to entities whose primary missions may not be the public good would weaken the integrity of the CSU and the public’s ability to hold us accountable for quality and effectiveness. 

For so many Californians, our public colleges and universities are still the largest and most consistent providers of quality courses (in a variety of formats), rich opportunities for academic success, and relatively affordable prices.  We believe that providing Californians with meaningful access to higher education requires that we provide adequate public investment in our university system. 

Simply increasing online offerings (on the questionable assumption that it is cheaper) or handing off education to private vendors will not serve California well in the long run.

Legislators’ well-intentioned efforts to increase access for students ignore a proven solution that we know will increase access: investing resources into more class sections. Legislation that promotes too good-to-be-true alternatives to reinvesting in our public colleges and universities will not solve the state’s needs for an educated citizenry.

CFA continues to monitor and is negotiating with legislators with legislation impacting higher education and will keep you updated on the latest developments.