California’s community college system is losing students. Attending community college can be a major step to economic mobility, but a 20% drop in enrollment during the pandemic means the system has fewer than 2 million students for the first time in over 30 years. That is likely terrible news for the future of California's economy.
But it’s also not the full picture. What we’re seeing isn’t just a drop in enrollment — it’s a shift in what students are looking for in a community college.
Traditional Colleges In An Untraditional World
“The majority of students in many if not most of the state’s community colleges who have decided to return to school are preferring to study remotely, or at the least in some hybrid format,” a recent article in EdSource noted. “For these students, who tend to be older, working, and often parents — or even grandparents — remote learning is the only way they’ll be able to be in college. For many of them, considerable research shows, the absence of face-to-face interaction will make it less likely that they’ll succeed.”
At some colleges, up to two-thirds of the class offerings are now online, despite the ability of the colleges to offer full in-person courses again. This reinforces a point that research has already shown: for many students, the cost of college isn’t the only barrier to attending. It needs to work with their lives.
Calbright’s student data shows similar trends: 90% of our students cite our unique model as the reason their program was accessible, and 78% highlight our skills-based workforce training as a leading reason they enrolled.
Online Learning Can’t Be One-Size-Fits-All
As the pandemic made clear, you can't just move course materials online, switch a class to Zoom, and expect it to work out. A successful online class, let alone a whole program of study, has to be carefully and specifically designed for the students in it and the medium through which they’ll participate.
As a result, colleges across California are asking themselves how they can adjust to large populations of non-traditional students opting for online courses — and designing those courses in a way that will help students succeed. .
A Different Kind of College For Traditionally Underserved Students
Calbright was designed to be a new kind of college, one that is accessible to non-traditional students and designed to support them. In practice that means:
- We accept all adult Californians who have a high school diploma or equivalent. We don’t put up barriers to admission: our job is to take those barriers down.
- We are entirely online, and have programs to make sure that our students have access to the technology they need to successfully complete an online program.
- We have implemented human-powered support systems for our online students, intended to counter the difficulties and isolation of online learning. We offer more kinds of support to our students precisely because “online learning” requires a different approach to succeed.
- We are entirely career focused: we don’t offer traditional degrees. Instead we offer certifications that hiring managers are looking for in upwardly mobile fields. Because we aren’t offering traditional degrees, we can use different kinds of teaching models — Calright is on the cutting edge of Competency Based Education, a teaching model that emphasizes what students learn rather than how much time they’ve spent in class. Students can truly study at their own pace, and have their education fit their lives.
- Most of our courses can be completed in under a year, but students can work faster if they have the capacity or slower when they need to — with no penalties or administrative red tape.
As online students come to make up significantly larger proportions of community college students, community colleges are discovering that they need to take different approaches to admissions, to program design, to pedagogy, and to student support. We’re seeing a shift towards a new kind of community college offering: online classes with more flexibility and support.
This isn’t an accident — this is actually what the state legislature expected to happen. Our founding legislation specifically charges Calbright with being a center of research and practice for online learning and to report out to the community college system about what we learn. Our job is to develop new approaches and share the successful ones with our sister public colleges across California, so that they can apply these lessons in ways that work for them.
We take that mission seriously. It’s why we’re the only fully online college that is part of a federal Department of Education community college research center studying new ways to design online classes, and it’s why we’re working with UC Irvine to develop new approaches to support online students.
As more and more college students are turning to online options, California’s colleges can benefit from Calbright’s efforts.