Are online universities a better approach to Obama's free community college plan?

Worth considering a range of options, experts say

WASHINGTON D.C. - The verdict is still out on President Obama’s recently introduced plan to provide free community college to students across the country. Some see it as a much needed answer to help students from low income families get a first step towards a degree. Yet others see it as a waste of money pushing education at a college system that has an extremely low success rate--only 22 percent of students graduate within three years.

So what should be done instead? Some education experts say the answer lies in the newly developing world of online universities.

“I know we will see in the next year or two, the emergence of very new online universities with blended components to them. Universities really geared around student’s needs to get into the workforce,” said Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and author of two education books. “It won’t be about a certain amount of time in class, it will be about ‘how do we get you to learn the skills you need to have to be successful in that job search and in your career?’”

A number of those institutions already exist, and offer some pretty reasonable pricing options like the online competency-based program at Patten University, $350 a month, or Southern New Hampshire’s College for America that charges an annual tuition of $2,500. The additional benefit: reading materials are online and a fraction of the cost of hard-copy books.

One critique of Obama’s proposal is that it is too narrowly focused. Historically, community colleges were the only way for students to get a leg up in education, before ideally transferring to a four-year university. But with the rise of online universities, community colleges now seem strikingly outdated in comparison.

“One of the reasons why people go to a community college, is it’s close to where they live. It’s easy to get to. It’s trying to address courses that might be appropriate for a certain location,” said Stuart Butler, senior fellow of economics studies at the Brookings Institute. “The best of the online university options, and the more interesting ones linked up to employers, also do exactly the same thing and they don’t involve the transportation costs. You don’t have to do it a certain day or a certain time…Online allows a much more customized way of approaching it.”

In addition to the specialized education students can have through online programs, experts say they also offer students more choices.

“It just underscores that depending on who the younger person is and their background and their skill sets it really isn’t a one size fits all,” Butler said. He says Obama’s plan should allow an option for choice and not be purely focused on helping students get education through community colleges. 

Butler also says that by focusing on these institutions, the president’s plan may push students who qualify for a traditional four year university, or online bachelor’s degree, to a community college to save on tuition, a phenomenon known as undermatching.

“[Community college] is absolutely not the right place for a lot of people and kids. Sometimes you have kids who are really quite able and would be successful at the challenging four year universities for example, but to say you’ll go to community college for two years and then transfer to Harvard, it just doesn’t happen,” Butler said.

Some education experts worry that while Obama’s plan does address expenses, it doesn’t focus enough on getting students into the right type of education institution.

“I think there’s critical innovation we need to see in the years ahead—which is why I wouldn’t’ say let’s put all of our money into online universities today either,” said Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute. “But let’s also not lock into a system we know doesn’t work. Instead let’s just keep room for innovation to flourish to help these students.”

[Related: Is it enough to make community colleges free?]

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