By Jim Miller
It’s the first week of classes in the San Diego Community College District where I teach, and, as has become almost an annual ritual, the new year comes with a number of suspect education reforms from Sacramento.
Jerry Brown released his budget proposal recently, and unfortunately, there are two big, bad ideas that the Governor would like to be part of his higher education legacy: a new fully online college and performance-based funding. What unites these initiatives is that they are both driven more by corporate education reform ideology than sound pedagogy or evidence that they will be effective in reaching their stated aim.
I’ll start with the online college. Governor Brown, California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, and other advocates for a new fully online statewide college claim that it is not meant as competition for the programs that already exist in our colleges. This new college, they argue, is aimed at serving a population not being reached by community colleges at present—working adults, 48% of whom are in Spanish speaking households.
The problem with this proposal, however, is that the underlying assumptions it is based on are deeply flawed. As opposed to what the proponents of this new fully online college say, this initiative is, in fact, duplicative of what the community college system already provides to our students, a large percentage of whom are working adults and people of color. Indeed, students from anywhere in California can currently take classes at any college in the state through the State Chancellor’s Office’s Online Education Initiative (OEI). This current system is already 100% online, including counseling and tutorial services.
There is also very little evidence that students are breaking down the barricades to rush to more online classes. Hence, the argument that there is pent-up demand during a period of declining enrollments is suspect. As CFT President Josh Pechthalt recently noted in the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a misnomer to think that people can’t get over to a college. For those who can’t, colleges already offer online opportunities. To create a whole independent college that does just online courses seems counterproductive. I’m not opposed to online education, but schools already offer that stuff.”
Online education is currently an engine of racial inequality, and no good higher ed policy can be created by ignoring that fact.
It is also highly questionable whether or not an entirely online college is the best thing for the intended student population. While the program is being sold in terms of access and serving underprepared students, the great irony is that there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that these students don’t do well in online courses. Funding a “new” initiative based on helping a student demographic which is least likely to succeed makes no sense from either a pedagogical or policy viewpoint, and it is at odds with the important student equity work currently underway in our colleges.
Indeed, after assessing much of the recent data on the success rates of online education for underprepared students and students of color in particular, some scholars are beginning to come to rather disturbing conclusions about online education and its effectiveness for students of color. In “Online and the Color Line” on the Remaking the University site, Christopher Newfield observes of the new online push for California’s community colleges that:
Online continues to deliver a significant drop in success rates in basic skills courses . . . In addition, online makes the racial disparity of in-person courses somewhat worse. The success rates of “Underrepresented Minority Students,” to use the standard classification, are poor . . . One reasonable policy conclusion would be quite the opposite of Brown’s and Oakley’s–Black and Latinx “basic skills” students should never be placed in online courses. White and Asian students should use them sparingly.
Indeed, other efforts with online experiments, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), have already spectacularly failed at the CSUs but that hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm for online which is now being aimed at the student population with the least chance of succeeding in such a college. Newfield wisely points out that the real motivation here is cost-savings and that that line of thinking is also suspect:
State leaders are wrong to continue to push online as a categorical good. This current push depends on aggregating data in a way that conceals how online disadvantages African American and Latinx students. Online education is currently an engine of racial inequality, and no good higher ed policy can be created by ignoring that fact.
Online should never be used to excuse state budgets that are too small to support the established features of educational quality. These features include the presence of fully-qualified teachers working with classes that are small enough to allow individual feedback. Online that approaches face-to-face quality is actually a “hybrid” that relies on structured personal contact. We know of no hybrid online courses that will save universities money. States should never budget by assuming the opposite.
Thus, however well-intended, rushing to pour $120 million into a new online college that doesn’t serve the intended student demographic as well as face-to-face teaching does when we may soon be in a new funding crisis as a result of the federal tax plan seems unwise at best.
In addition to the statewide online college, the Governor has also included a move toward performance-based funding in his budget proposal. The idea here, according to proponents of the plan, is to provide financial incentives to colleges to improve completion and transfer rates. While this sounds like a reasonable idea on the surface, there is a significant problem with it: there is no evidence to suggest that it works.
As EdSource reported in their recent piece on the Governor’s proposal, researchers at the Community College Research Center note that “there is no evidence that such funding has boosted the numbers of students earning associate or bachelor’s degrees.”
And it’s not just one source that makes that claim. Despite a years-long push by corporate-funded think tanks like Lumina promoting this and a host of other awful education reform ideas, the returns on performance-based funding are not good.
Colleges that have more financial capacity are in the best position to serve students well; in fact, funding per student is one of the strongest predictors of college graduation.
For instance, in a thoroughgoing recent report on the subject, “Why Performance-Based College Funding Doesn’t Work,” Nicholas Hillman of the Century Foundation documents how, despite its use in 35 states, performance-based funding has yet to yield significant positive results. In fact, despite the glowing rhetoric of the reformers, Hillman observes that “the assumptions don’t match the reality” as it has not even been illustrated that this model is even slightly more effective than traditional funding formulas.
As he concludes: “there is little empirical or theoretical support behind performance-based funding in higher education, yet states continue to adopt and expand their efforts even when the weight of evidence suggests performance-based funding is not well suited for improving educational outcomes.”
The answer, Hillman asserts, is not the carrot and stick model of performance-based funding, but rather improving the funding for the lowest performing colleges. For those of us who have spent years advocating for more funding for higher education, his logic is elementary:
Colleges that have more financial capacity are in the best position to serve students well; in fact, funding per student is one of the strongest predictors of college graduation. As states divest from public higher education, they shift the financial responsibility onto students in the form of higher tuition. Rather than stemming this tide, performance-based funding may actually reinforce this race to the bottom in that colleges that have the greatest capacity are those that will be most likely to perform well. If this occurs to a high extent, then financial incentives are a blunt policy instrument not well designed for improving college completions. Instead, states should focus on building the resource capacity of the lowest-performing colleges and then allocate funds according to performance-oriented needs.
So rather than jump on the ideological bandwagon here, the Governor would be better served to learn from the failure of other states that have fallen for this educational assembly line snake oil. Otherwise, colleges will be incentivized to use their too-scarce funding to turn themselves into degree mills.
Sadly, the bottom line is that rather than going really big and bold and trying to finally address the funding inequities that impact both access and completion in higher education by looking at the kind of Proposition 13 reform that the Make It Fair coalition is proposing, the Governor is going for precisely the sort of recycled corporate education reform gimmicks that have not and will not achieve his stated aims. Let’s hope by the end of the budget process, he can be convinced to steer clear of these two ideas that will not reflect well on his legacy.