Community colleges traditionally have served students preparing for transfer to a four-year university, and adult learners who are able to make the commitment to going back to school full- or part-time. But what about those potential students who can’t make the time to attend school; those who are unemployed and searching for work, or who already are working more than one job to make ends meet?

To address those needs, California has created the first fully-online community college within the state’s existing community college system.

The California Online Community College District (COCCD) originally was proposed by former Governor Jerry Brown. It targets what are considered “stranded workers”: the 2.5 million Californians aged 25 to 34 who finished high school but have no degree. Another 6.2 million Californians aged 35 to 65 fall into that same category. Forty-nine percent of the state’s stranded workers are from Spanish-speaking households.

When individuals can’t earn family-sustaining income, it costs local and federal budgets almost $159 billion in public support to low-wage earners, according to data cited by COCCD. Businesses nationwide risk the loss of more than $160 billion because they can’t find enough skilled workers.

Heather Hiles, the COCCD’s inaugural CEO and president, is both an educator and entrepreneur. She tells WorkingNation the goal of the new online community college is to provide skills, support, and training as a path to better living-wage jobs.

She founded Imminent Equity and the cloud-based digital portfolio system Pathbrite. Hiles is a one-time commissioner of the San Francisco Unified School District, and former deputy director of solutions for post-secondary success with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She received her B.A. from The University of California, Berkeley and her M.B.A. from Yale.

Partnering with the State’s Employers

The COCCD will not focus on transfer credits or the A.A. degree like the state’s brick-and-mortar campuses. Instead, Hiles says, the online college will partner with employers in a competency-based education program, focusing on skill sets that make it possible for advancement in specific careers. The training and educational programs will have a nominal cost, or be free for the learner, while companies will pay to help develop the curriculum that makes sense for their specific jobs.

WorkingNation Overheard: Heather Hiles at ASU GSV Summit 2019 | WorkingNation

Heather Hiles, president and CEO of California Online Community College District, speaks to WorkingNation at ASU GSV Summit 2019 on investing in free or nominal education and training for adult learners.

“That includes the hard, and the functional, and the soft competencies for those jobs, and paying (students) to learn them,” Hiles notes. “Once you get through the appraisal period, if it takes you one month to learn the competencies because you have 50 percent of them already, or if it takes you up to, say, 12 months, the employer will pay you for the months that it takes you to learn those competencies. And you’ll know exactly what job you’re preparing for because you’re getting applied learning experiences as well as the hard competencies, training, etc.”

The online community college already is joining forces with one of the state’s largest employee unions to create the first “stepping stone”: a medical coding training program. “We’re partnering with SEIU [Service Employees International Union],” Hiles says. “They polled their members and found that that was the first job type that folks wanted training in. And now we’re starting to cement our partnerships with the employers who are hiring the medical coders so that we’ll be training people with those employers along the way and, that they’ll just smoothly, as the final step, move into those positions.”

Cybersecurity will be the second offering. The two programs are scheduled to go live in October.

Building Student-Employer Relationships

Hiles promises the online community college will offer students more than just training and job placement.

“We’re also helping them build relationships in the network with employers, which I think is very important. And then, even post-being hired by the employer, we will have success officers who are helping them, coaching them to continue to build and be happy and thrive once they’re on the job.”

Hiles acknowledges a strictly online learning experience may not be successful for everyone. “We’re building out blended learning experiences. What we know is for people who traditionally haven’t had a lot of successful experiences with traditional education that a fully online program doesn’t work very well for them.”

“So, what we need to do is share the right content that is free or affordable as well as provide other kinds of coaching and supports, such as what does it mean to navigate a career and develop in a gig-based economy? What are the 21st-century skills that you need to learn?”

Developing Skills Without A Degree

Photo courtesy of California Community College System. Left to right: Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Pamela Halloway, Heather Hiles, Tom Epstein

California’s Chancellor for Community Colleges Eloy Ortiz Oakley sees reskilling and upskilling the workforce as one of today’s biggest educational challenges, especially for those who don’t have a four-year degree. He expects the school to enroll between 25,000 and 30,000 students in its first three years.

“While we talk a lot about the pipeline from K-12 through higher education, there’s a whole other pipeline we rarely talk about, and that’s the incumbent workforce,” Oakley tells WorkingNation. “We have a lot of workers, well over eight million in California, that have nothing more than a high school diploma.”

“We need to reach out to those workers,” he says. “We need to help them gain the skills they need in order to be relevant in today’s economy. It’s critically important because if they don’t have access to good-paying jobs, it makes it much harder for their children to have quality access to a good education.”

Oakley believes community colleges are a vital pipeline to the high number of jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree. “We hear across the country how many unfilled jobs there are in the technical fields, and so our community colleges are the best fit for people who want to get into those jobs quickly. Then we hope that they continue to learn, and they continue to grow. Certainly, at some point, a four-year degree may be something that is in their future, but in the meantime, we have lots of students earning very good paychecks with a certificate or an associate’s degree.”

Online Community College Opposition

But not everyone is onboard with the idea of a virtual community college. Recently, the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges (FACCC) Board of Governors gave a unanimous “no confidence” vote to Chancellor Oakley, in part, because of the COCCD. The FACCC is concerned about the potential competition posed to current online programs and believes that the money allocated for the online college should be used to enhance existing offerings.

An initial $100 million has been committed to the creation of the COCCD. It is budgeted for an additional $20 million in annual funding over seven years. The COCCD is considered California’s 115th community college.

In a statement, Oakley says, “The Californians we seek to reach cannot stop working to get the education they need to get ahead, and many of them juggle multiple jobs to feed their families. As much as we would like to, we cannot will them onto our campuses. We need to rethink traditional delivery models and pedagogues and meet this population where and when they are ready to gain skills and credentials.”

Tom Epstein, president of California Community Colleges Board of Governors, responded to the “no confidence” vote in a statement saying that the system is “committed to reforms enacted in recent years by strong bipartisan majorities in the legislature.” He adds, “The faculty’s input and active engagement is vital to the creation and execution of a strategy that will provide our students with the excellent education and job training they deserve.”

Jeff Ryder is an award-winning journalist, writer, and digital producer. His credits include initiatives for Verizon, Penske Racing, Sprint, Sony, McDonald’s, and Rolling Stone.

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