California is a state of higher education contrasts. Faced with severe budget cuts, the state’s community colleges curtailed course offerings and closed their doors to new students. In 2009-10 alone, 140,000 first-time students were kept out; between 2008 and 2012, campuses reduced course offerings by 24 percent. Observers estimate that hundreds of thousands of students have been stuck on waitlists for introductory courses that they must pass to make progress.
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, computer scientists and entrepreneurs have enrolled millions of students in free, online college courses in the space of just over a year. The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on offer at Coursera, Udacity, and other firms are turning what was once scarce—college coursework—into something that is abundant.
As the New York Times reported yesterday, a proposal in the California state Senate will blend these two worlds. With Governor Jerry Brown’s support, Democrat (and president pro tem) Darrell Steinberg introduced a new bill that will call on community colleges to enable students who cannot get a seat in chronically overenrolled introductory courses to get those credits via an equivalent online course from approved provider. In other words, Steinberg’s bill would empower students to fulfill their degree requirements in a timely manner even if their own university can’t fit them in the lecture hall that semester. Steinberg said, “We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed.”
Where this eventually goes will depend on how California faculty members respond. But the move could be far-reaching. It not only has the potential to help more students graduate on time, but it could also create a market for these introductory courses, where different organizations and firms can compete for students based on the quality of their teaching and content. Such competition could lead to improvements in quality and affordability.
The Steinberg bill is also the latest example of what’s become a welcome national trend: forward-thinking state leaders—from both parties—responding to tight public budgets with calls for higher education innovation. Critics may not want to admit it, but Republicans and Democrats as polarized as President Obama and Senator Marco Rubio, or Governors Brown and Scott Walker, agree on one thing: higher education must change to reflect changing times.
Earlier this week, we wrote about this trend in response to an article by Salon’s Andrew Leonard that argued MOOCs are a conservative conspiracy to destroy college. In Leonard’s view, Walker and Governors Rick Perry and Rick Scott are the three “horsemen of the MOOC apocalypse;” they’ve cut higher education funding as a pretense to farm higher education out to private sector MOOC providers. Despite his obvious preference for MOOCs, Brown was left off the list because, in Leonard’s words, the California governor’s “motivation [is] very different from Perry et. al.”
This is partisan claptrap. Brown and Steinberg, like their Republican peers in other states, have a problem: California’s higher education system is simply not equipped to serve all comers in the new budgetary environment. Rather than stand by while students are turned away, they’ve challenged the community—established institutions and new providers—to come up with a way to solve the problem.
What’s at stake here is the country’s ability to fill labor market demand. States and localities are still feeling the after-effects of the housing crash and the subsequent decline in tax revenue. With economic growth still slow, these funding problems won’t disappear any time soon. The result? Human capital needs will continue to go unmet unless we rethink the way we deliver higher education. Helping students get the courses they need when they need them and at an affordable price—whether via traditional institutions, MOOCs, or tomorrow’s next big thing—is a critical piece of this equation.