The flag of California, flying at San Francisco City Hall. (Wikimedia Commons/Makaristos)
Here’s how California treats its public colleges and universities: first, cut public funds, and thus classes; then wait for over-enrollment, as students are unable to get the classes they need to graduate; finally, shift classes online, for profit. That’s the way Laila Lalami, UC Riverside creative writing professor, explained it in a recent tweet, and that’s pretty much the whole story behind the bill introduced this week by the Democratic leader of the state senate, Darrell Steinberg. His bill requires California’s community colleges, along with the twenty-three Cal State schools and the ten-campus university, to allow students to substitute online courses for required courses taught by faculty members. The key to the proposal: the online courses will be offered by profit-making companies.
Steinberg argues, correctly, that the state’s colleges and universities have an obligation to offer the courses they require for graduation. Right now hundreds of thousands of students are prevented from graduating on schedule because they can’t get into required lower-division courses. That’s shameful, and intolerable. But it’s a crisis created by the legislature, when it cut hundreds of millions from the state’s higher education budget over the last few years.
Advocates of the new plan downplay the for-profit aspect and emphasize instead that they want to “mobilize technology” to “help students achieve their dreams.” But National Review Online rightly emphasized the key element of the plan (while providing their own ideological spin): the proposal will “break the higher education cartel” by bringing in profit-making corporations with a different “business model.”
Advocates of the plan told the Los Angeles Times that it represents “a watershed moment for higher education” that will encourage the rest of the nation to take similar steps. Since the Democrats hold super-majorities in both houses of the California legislature, the bill is sure to pass—and Governor Jerry Brown is likely to sign it into law.
The companies that make a profit by providing required courses online include Coursera, edX and Udacity, the big three. Coursera is “the leader of the pack,” according to The New York Times. In less than a year, it raised $22 million in venture capital. The big issue for investors, the Times reports, is whether “anyone can figure out how to make money” in this new business. James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor who specializes in computer and Internet law, told the Times, “I expect all the current ventures to fail…. it’s maybe a decade later that somebody figures out how to do it and make money.”