California SB 520 Could Define a New Right Right for Students – Access to Courses

I previously shared the text of SB 520, the proposed California legislation that would identify and approve a set of up to 50 online courses that the three public systems would accept as credit for admitted students. In my notes for the press conference introducing the bill, there are updated links to most major press articles on the bill as select blog posts. Michael shared his analysis  of the bill and where he thinks changes are needed.

The more time I have to think about this news, the more I’m convinced that if successful, the passage of this bill (or an amended version substantially meeting the stated aims described in the press conference) could have an impact much bigger than California students taking online courses. This bill aims to establish a new right – for admitted students to have access to the courses they need.

The right for admitted students to have courses available

The real significance of SB 520 is that it focuses on the student, not the institution, and specifically on admitted students. When the Master Plan was adopted in California starting in 1960, the basic premise was to guarantee students a place within one of the three public systems based on their high school record. It was assumed that by having a place in a public institution, the student would have access to needed courses.

For various reasons, this assumption is no longer valid.

As Hillary Hill described at e-Literate (yes, she’s my daughter) and as Rich Copenhagen described at the SB 520 press conference, there is a crisis for enrolled students in trying to get into the courses they need. What good is being admitted if you still can’t complete your education?

Rather than directly address the institutions and how they operate, SB 520 focuses on the student and (if successful), this approach will change the conversation. Admitted students would have the right to get the lower-division courses they need, and if the school cannot provide the courses, there will be a release valve of online courses that the schools have to accept for credit.

Changing risk / reward, but letting colleges decide

This approach, while not directly addressing what any individual college or university should do, does change the risk / reward structure. There is a strong argument that institutions will fight this bill for the reason that high-enrollment lower-division courses are in fact the biggest money-makers for a school. By the availability of these courses from online providers, schools will now have greater motivation to provide the courses for more students who need them, if the schools want to keep the revenue.

If a school chooses to cut the seats available for these critical courses, there is now a financial cost to their decision in a way that does not exist currently. Right now, once the enrollment is set, the schools gets the same state revenue regardless of whether they provide courses or not.

A related point was made by Kate Bowles in a Twitter conversation on the bill.

If you have a system that can accommodate students, just not in the courses they need, actually you have a curriculum problem.

This is an excellent, but little discussed, issue in public higher education. Are public institutions offering the right mix of courses and programs based on student needs? As Kate indicates, our problem is not as simple as a course problem – it’s also a curriculum problem.

The challenge, however, is to spark change in our higher education system without having outside parties (such as state government, accrediting agencies, online providers) micromanage what is essentially an academic-led decision on curriculum.

It appears that the backers of SB 520 seek to provide an incentive system that avoids micromanagement – let the academic bodies lead make curriculum decisions – but provides an risk / reward structure to help ensure student needs come first. Should schools decide to essentially outsource part of the lower-division curriculum while providing other courses not in such high demand? Yes, there are reasons to do so in many cases – let the schools decide. But if a schools decides to use its resources this way, reduce the likelihood that admitted students would be short-changed.

Changing dynamics of system online programs

Consider the impact that the recent focus on online education from California government leaders – from Governor Brown’s meetings to the 20mmreboot conference to SB 520 – has already had on the public systems.

The University of California created UC Online nearly four years ago, but the focus prior to 2013 seemed to be mostly on helping the institution find new students and new revenu, and not on helping the already-admitted UC students. As described by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010:

Long term, the idea is to expand access to the university while saving money. Tuition for online and traditional courses would be the same. But with students able to take courses in their living rooms, the university envisions spending less on their education while increasing the number of tuition-paying students – helpful as state financial support drops.

Last year, CalState announced their online program CSU Online. Like UC Online, the focus was specifically NOT on admitted CalState students, but rather reaching new students and new revenue. In an open letter, the CSU Online executive director called out the goals (and by the way, note that the original letter is no longer available on the CalState site).

The 60 or so fully online self-support programs that currently exist throughout the CSU will comprise our initial effort with an eye toward serving the extensive mid-career professional and unemployed adults who are in need of this level of education to advance their careers. A full listing of the CSU’s online self-support programs is available on the Cal State Online website. The second focus should be the presentation of two or three degree completion programs in an effort to enhance workforce development.

The California Community College system does not have a systemwide online program beyond California Virtual Campus – a portal to find courses and programs offered by individual colleges and districts. However, the various online programs and courses for this system do primarily focus on admitted students.

And today? It is too early to see the effects specifically from SB 520, but we are seeing changes from the general push for online education and the focus on helping students get the courses they need.

From UC Online presentation less than a month ago:

During the UC online presentation, we learned that the university wants to move quickly to place many new courses online starting next Fall. The goal is to rapidly increase the ability of students on one campus to take a course on another campus. There is also the idea that students can take outside MOOC courses and get credit for them by taking an exam or asking for transfer credit. Once again, the stress was on taking care of the gateway course bottleneck.

From CSU Online in an article that just came out today:

Officials plan to use $21.7 million to hire more instructors and student support staff to admit nearly 6,000 more students, $10 million to fund online courses to allow more students to enroll in high-demand, required courses and $7.2 million for incentives for campuses to develop ways to push more students to graduate on time.

While there are still plans to find new students, there is a new urgency to serve admitted students from both programs.

What does success for SB 520 look like?

In this regard, Michael’s point is particularly important.

Let’s start by reminding ourselves of the real goal here. It is not to offer students seats in courses. It’s to get students to complete those courses successfully so that they can graduate more quickly. But there are a number of aspects of the world that SB 520 would create that conspire to reduce the likelihood of achieving that goal significantly. For starters, online courses in general—not just MOOCs—have lower completion rates than traditional face-to-face courses. They require more self-discipline, better reading skills, and better awareness of when to seek help than traditional classes do. Offering an online class to a student who otherwise would be shut out altogether is definitely better than nothing, but we need to recognize that we are already starting with a solution that has its challenges for achieving a goal of high completion rates, even if everything else is equal. [emphasis in original]

There is some real work to be done both during the shaping of the final bill and during the implementation to allow SB 520 to be successful in this context – course completion leading to degrees rather than just course availability. There are some real problems to address, but I’ll leave those barriers as a topic for another post.

I think the very approach of implicitly defining a right for admitted students to have access to the courses they need is significant in and of itself and is certainly worth trying. We need more focus on students.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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7 Responses to California SB 520 Could Define a New Right Right for Students – Access to Courses

  1. Nick DiNardo says:

    Well said Phil. I am eager to see what happens with the bill. Considering this system is such a bear, do you ever think there is an opportunity for the public systems to consider a competency-based model? Not only would that drive towards their goal for completion, but it would focus on mastery rather than seat time. My gut tells me this type of undertaking wouldn’t be done. They would need to really put an emphasis on prior learning assessment, amongst other efficiencies.

    Thanks as always,


  2. Phil Hill says:

    Nick, I think that SB 520 (language and intent) does allow competency-based education. Now whether the faculty panel will approve CBE courses or not is another question. The other issue is that most competency-based courses are bundled in a program – you’re all in with CBE or not. Would this work in a mix-and-match environment such as that envisioned by SB 520? Perhaps.

    I basically see CBE getting in to the CA publics through this bill, and StraighterLine is probably positioned best to take advantage. What doesn’t seem to be happening is a public discussion of CBE, its merits, companionship with PLA, etc. Maybe that will happen after the foot is in the door?

  3. Howard Davis says:

    Phil, thanks for laying out the the progress of SB520. Doesn’t this bill–well maybe not the bill itself, but certainly its trajectory– also potentially disrupt the very core concept of curriculum development, and ultimately the purposes of higher ed? Academe has focused forever on defining degrees and degree pathways with and without regard for “marketplace” demands, students’ needs, transferability of courses, prior learning, etc.

  4. Phil Hill says:

    “disrupt the very core concept of curriculum development”? I’d say that public institutions have done a fine job of that by themselves, to the point of making it almost a badge of honor that they are not influenced by marketplace or student demands. Remember, the concept here is addressing problem when students cannot take the necessary courses already defined in a curriculum. Listing a course as a component of a curriculum but not offering the class to the students who need it is effectively disrupting that curriculum concept and is the cause of, not the result of, SB 520.

    Having said that, yes, there is a risk here if the program were too successful and college became completely disassembled into ‘pick-and-choose each course from wherever’. But that situation feels a little hypothetical to me when we’re dealing with reality of students not having access to courses.

    To the degree that future SB 520 completely disassemble the curriculum – I agree that’s a (future / hypothetical problem). To the degree that SB 520 forces schools to pay more attention to marketplace demands, student needs, transferability, PLA – that’s for the good. To the degree that SB 520 would force schools into consumerism and just reacting to student whims – that’s a problem. There’s a spectrum here with a sweet spot.

  5. Howard Davis says:

    You caught my impatience with the current state of academe, which is probably why I’m trying to get to that future point, sooner rather than later.

    I agree that “There’s a spectrum here with a sweet spot.” SB 520 does address the long-standing issue of students not having access to courses–courses they need to continue/complete a degree program. (As a former faculty member–aeons ago–I know the problem well.) And yes, the universities, themselves, have created the muddle. I was just suggesting that SB 520 is yet another highlighter of the problems higher ed faces and serves, hopefully, as a catalyst for change.

    Certainly not advocating for consumerism or academic dilettantism, but suggesting that we may have to have a few swings of the pendulum before we hit that sweet spot.

  6. Beth says:

    Thank you for posting. I am very interested in this issue and have recently had discussions with students, university and college faculty and administrators about this issue. It seems that colleges and universities in California would like to offer all of the courses which students need to graduate, but have been unable to do so because of drastic funding cuts from the state, and years of underfunding. Providing adequate funding to our institutions of higher learning would allow colleges and universities in California to increase their course offerings. The courses offered by colleges and universities are accountable to the public. In the long run, I fear that privatizing higher education would lead to less accountability, lower quality of courses offered, and possibly higher expenses in the long run for students. California used to be a leader in education, both at the K-12 and higher education levels – our investment in education in the 1970s and 80s paved the way for Silicon Valley. Sadly, top tier, well-funded public education in California is no longer the case. It seems that our state Senate is sending a message that having an educated citizenry is no longer a priority for California. Perhaps we should look at prioritizing our public education system before privatizing it.

  7. Phil Hill says:

    Beth, I agree that funding is a major component and that quality of public higher education is important. I don’t think the issue is as simple as a stingy state underfunding the systems. The institutions and systems have not been focused on solving bottleneck courses, and priorities are an issue – not just funding or resources.

    Also, what is the role of online education, which is not going away? California’s 3 systems have not been as strategic as SUNY or other systems in trying to use online for the students’ collective benefit. UC Online and Cal State Online have been too focused in my opinion on finding revenue from non-matriculated students.

    All in all, I think this is a complex issue that does not have villains on one side and heroes on the other. Like you, I wish that California would again be a leader in education.

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