Report: Technology not the answer to bolstering community college access

Almost half of community colleges increased online course offerings in 2011.

More than 400,000 Americans were turned away from community colleges last year not because schools couldn’t keep up with the demand for online courses, but because deep state and federal budget cuts have left two-year campuses without educators to head those online classes.

Community colleges are, by most national measurements, at the forefront of web-based education, with campus administrators looking for any way to keep up with the growing demand for classes that began after the economic downturn of 2008.

But no amount of technological experimentation will compensate for good old-fashioned government investment in community colleges, according to a report from the Center for the Future of Higher Education Policy, which presents a series of arguments against the short-term goal – pushed by President Obama and House and Senate leaders – to arm workers with certificates to fill private sector job openings in the lackluster economy.

Despite an open-armed embrace of online learning, community colleges told 400,000 people last year that there was no room in their desired classes. Nearly half of community colleges reported enrollment increases in online education programs in 2011, while no other public sector has seen more drastic local, state, and federal budget cuts since 2009, according to the Center for the Future of Higher Education Policy report.

“At some point, even with all the technology in the world, you need to have a few human beings to administer these courses and to deliver the content,” said Gary Rhoades, a professor in the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education and author of the report, “Closing the Door, Increasing the Gap: Who’s not going to (community) college?” “We certainly think tech is fundamentally important, but we don’t see it as a silver bullet that will make up for a lack of investment.”

Community college adoption of online courses has been driven almost entirely by relentless demand for greater access. Nine in 10 community college presidents said demand has been the primary driver of the online learning spike, while 46 percent said cost cutting was the main goal, according to the 2011 Campus Computing Project.

Unprecedented cuts have left many community colleges with no money for more full-time or adjunct faculty – a shortfall that could derail Obama’s goal to have the world’s largest share of college graduates by 2020, despite the president’s inclusion of $8 billion for online and in-person training in community colleges in his 2013 budget proposal unveiled in February.

Rhoades said the 400,000 people who couldn’t gain admittance to their local two-year college were disproportionately minority and low-income students, the exact demographics targeted by for-profit colleges with consistently low graduation rates and recruiting and academic practices that have drawn scrutiny from state and federal lawmakers in recent years.

“The issue is not only that there are people being turned away from community colleges, but who it is that is being turned away,” Rhoades said. “The populations who [have been turned away] are often looking to for-profit colleges as an alternative.”

Paul Steenhausen, a  community college expert for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said in the report that it’s not just adult students returning to education after years in the workforce who are being turned away from their local two-year colleges.

Recent high school graduates are told to look elsewhere, too.

“I liken it to an unfortunate game of musical chairs where there’s not enough chairs for participants and when the music stops, it’s the new guy every time who winds up without a seat,” Steenhausen said.

Numerous national surveys have documented an explosion in online course offerings across higher education in recent years, and a 2011 report from market research firm Ambient Insight projected the number of college students taking online college courses will equal the number of students who attend classes in a traditional classroom by 2015.

In three years, the report said, there will be more than 25 million postsecondary students taking at least one online course. But the more jarring statistic might be Ambient Insight’s projections for traditional courses.

The number of college students taking traditional face-to-face classes will plummet from 14.4 million in 2010 to 4.1 million in 2015, according to the report. And with the population of only-online students expected to triple during that time, so-called traditional learning will be level with online learning.

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