A month ago Governor Jerry Brown directed Eloy Oakley, Chancellor of the California Community College System (CCCS)1 to "take whatever steps are necessary" to establish a fully-online college. At first glance this directive appears to be a solution in search of a problem, so it is worth looking beyond the headline see what is motivating this move.
Noting that the system has significantly expanded the number of online courses, Brown said, “I believe it is time now for our community colleges to increase even further the availability of online courses and degree programs – and make college far more accessible and affordable.”
Reaching more students
“The governor has been interested in realizing the promise of online education for a number of years,” Oakley said in an interview with CCDaily. He added that Brown also wants a way to reach more nontraditional students.
“We have literally tens of thousands of working adults with some college and no credentials and a couple of million working adults who are unemployed or underemployed,” Oakley said. “This is a wonderful opportunity to reach a population that really needs a community college to achieve economic mobility.”
The details are not yet worked out, and Oakley is pulling together a group to advise on the options available to make this directive a reality, with the recommendations due in November. Oakley's comments clearly establish access for nontraditional students to be the ultimate driver. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Oakley commented further:
“Part of this is the governor’s desire to reach more students in California through a technology platform,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community College system. “The 114 campuses are designed in a traditional manner, so we’re reaching a traditional population that is students coming out of high schools.”
But a new online-only college could reach students those traditional brick-and-mortar campuses are currently missing -- adults who are unemployed or underemployed, he said.
To achieve these goals of reaching more working adult students, there are some real challenges to address.
View of CCCS Enrollment Mix
It is worth viewing the historical headcount numbers available from the Chancellor's office, focusing on age group to get a better understanding of the status quo.
The headcount for CCCS peaked in 2009 at 2.93 million students and has since dropped to the current 2.36 million level, a reduction of 19%. Across the state, colleges are looking for ways to increase, or at least slow the decrease, in overall enrollment.
What is most striking in the data, however, is the shift from older students (age 25 and above, or "adults") to younger students (age 24 and blow, or "traditional") for the community college system, with the mix roughly reversed from 25 years ago. Chancellor Oakley and Governor Brown are right to note that the older student population is not being served well, at least if we use actual enrollment as a proxy. And the situation is getting worse, not better. However, while the majority of students in CCCS are 24 or younger, there are also a large number of older adult students. In other words, there appears to be an overlap between the students in the current 114 colleges and the target students for the new fully-online college. This will present quite a challenge for Oakley and other planners to make the following statement from the IHE interview a reality.
“We don’t want to cannibalize the system, and we wouldn't want to create a college to take enrollment from other colleges,” Oakley said. “Any solution would have to complement what we do, and it has to have an opportunity to share revenue with the colleges and really enhance their ability to serve students.”
This statement is sounds good on paper and will be crucial in terms of getting at least tacit support from the current colleges to the creation of a new, full-online college. But the data shows there is not a clear and easy path to serve adult, non-traditional students without affecting existing colleges.
In this situation California is not alone. The National Student Clearinghouse research for Fall 2016 shows first that community college (2-year public) enrollments have been dropping nationwide.
And just like in California, adult student enrollment has been dropping much faster than 18-24 year old enrollment. 24 and under groups have dropped 1.0 - 2.4% per year while 25 and above groups have dropped 5.5 - 7.6% per year (see bottom two rows).
This will be another challenge for the CCCS planning team, as there is no indication that California is screwing up while other states have the same problem figured out - the reduction in community college enrollments, particularly for adult students, appears to be a nationwide demographic trend.
Assuming that the plan works out and they find new enrollment opportunities that don't cannibalize existing college student groups, it is also worth considering how large this college might become. I pulled together the IPEDS data for several of the top-growing online undergraduate colleges2 to get some idea of what the best-case scenario might be in terms of enrollment growth. This data looks at fall enrollment numbers which will be lower than full-year headcount numbers.
Once we get past the "holy crap, look at Southern New Hampshire University's (SNHU) growth", there are a few observations to make.
- We'll have to see where SNHU goes, but there has traditionally been a ceiling to the size of online enrollment per institution of around 80,000 - 100,000. The primary exception has been the University of Phoenix that reached a quarter of a million online students back in 2010, but their enrollment has been dropping since then and are more of the exception that proves the rule. All others have peaked well under 100,000 students. Just this spring Liberty University experienced their first recent enrollment drop, leading to staff layoffs.
- The maximum growth rate of these cherry-picked successful schools ranges from ~1,200 / year for Excelsior to ~7,700 / year for SNHU (note that Rio Salado at ~1,400 / year is the only public institution). Add to this the fact that all of these schools have been around for decades. No accreditation issues, no time-consuming establishment of core leadership team, etc.
- There is a big difference in dealing with institutional issues and statewide issues, particularly in California. One in five US community college students in the US do so in California, and the statewide issues tend to come in large numbers. Statewide issues tend to come in hundreds of thousands while institutional issues tend to come in tens of thousands.
What this points to is that for a new fully-online institution to get to some meaningful level of enrollment (let's say 20,000) in the same ballpark as these comparison schools, I estimate it would take a full decade at the least. This is the reason, by the way, that Mitch Daniels and Purdue University made the Kaplan University deal even though Kaplan's enrollments are dropping. Daniels did not want to wait a decade to get to meaningful enrollment numbers for an online college serving working adults - if everything works out, within a year Purdue will have a fully-online institution serving 30,000+ working adults. That is a big if, by the way.
None of this analysis is to argue that CCCS should not try to establish a fully-online college. The goal of better serving nontraditional populations - adult students with and without jobs - is worth pursuing on its own merits.
The numbers do argue, however, for a realistic view on the challenges they face:
- Fighting against national demographic trends for adult students of community colleges;
- Trying to avoid cannibalizing enrollment from existing California Community Colleges;
- Having the patience to support the schools while it take years to grow to a size with meaningful enrollment levels; and
- Accepting that best case this approach probably recovers less than 10% of the enrollment drop since 2009.
I would hope that the CCCS planning efforts take the hard numbers into consideration when searching for different options to satisfy the governor's directive.