New Obama Community College Plan Hinges on Online Courses

President Obama seeks 5 million more graduates from community colleges by 2020.

Earlier this year, President Obama told America that everyone should try to get at least a year of job training after high school. In a speech he gave in July at Macomb Community College in Michigan, he set a goal: He seeks five million more Americans to graduate from a community college by 2020.

For this to happen. Obama noted that he intends to invest a total of $12 in the next 10 years. Known as the American Graduation Initiative, the plan puts aside $9 billion to devise new grants that are offered to schools to come up with new programs and to expand job training/counseling. His hope is that these programs will boost learning for college students and lead to higher completion rates for the schools. The plan also puts aside $2.5 billion to renovate facilities at college campuses.

For many students, not even community college is an option because of the high costs of tuition, problems with their schedules or not being able to travel. Lack of security in the job market also means that people are less willing to leave work to go back to school.

That is why another part of the Obama plan is to invest $500 million to come up with new online courses for community colleges. These funds could support the creation of up to 25 high school and college classes each year. They would be available via several community colleges and also through the distributed learning network at the Defense Department.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is calling this program “Obama’s Great Course Giveaway.’ The details on the plan are still coming out, but the courses by the government could be provided at no cost through a sort of ‘21st Century Library’ that could reach students all over the spectrum on their computers, tablets and smart phones. Community colleges would then have the ability to link their classes with traditional college class features, such as interaction with professors, for costs that would be a great deal less than if the classes were developed at the college.

About the American Graduation Initiative

  • Community College Challenge Fund to develop new workforce training

  • College Access and Completion Fund to increase college graduation rates

  • $2.5 billion in federal funds to spur $10 billion in construction and renovation on college campuses

  • Online Skills Laboratory that provides grants for deveeloping free classes for high schools and colleges

In one concept, the classes could be made via a joint effort with federal departments and an external education organization. Through the centralization of the production of the materials, it could be possible to minimize the costs and to have more classes available to students than through separate college courses. The government also could provide support for a National Skills College that would come up with final exams so that course results and retention could be easily assessed.

Clearly, the success of this Obama initiative largely will hinge upon the successful integration of online classes and online degrees. Due to great advances in technology – blogging, video streaming, instant messaging and broad band Internet connectivity – onlines classes can be done very much like campus based classes.

In recent years, highly prominent universities in the US have devised pioneering online education programs that show how valuable the virtual classroom is today. For example, MIT launched its OpenCourseWare System in 2001, and has been posting videos and other types of class materials so that people around the world can learn for free. Other new, effective online course providers at no charge include edX by MIT and Harvard, and Coursera. Many of the classes that they offer include master’s level and Ph.D. level courses.

Large universities, such as West Virginia University, have had online classes for years, and according to Toni Jones, associate director for career services as WVU, there is a major trend towards offering classes online. She has taught many of these classes and claims that she has been able to mostly replicate the campus based class online. And Georgia Tech University recently announced that it is going to offer a master of computer science degree fully online for $7000 (although most master’s programs still are pricey, and you have to be smart about looking for grad school financial aid). It appears that in the future, online master’s degrees and online Ph.D.s will continue to be offered more and more, and at lower prices.

So, the potential for online classes and degrees is clear.

Still it is not obvious if colleges that use government-made classes could create systems that will be acceptable to professors, students and employers. Nonetheless, this plan by Obama does have the potential to assist community colleges to boost the number of classes that they offer, offer new degrees and keep costs down. And online classes could play a very big part in that.