For Free Community College, Online Learning Isn’t Always Part of the...

Digital Learning

For Free Community College, Online Learning Isn’t Always Part of the Recipe for Success

By Sydney Johnson     May 18, 2018

For Free Community College, Online Learning Isn’t Always Part of the Recipe for Success

Free community college programs are springing up around the country, aiming to bring more students to local higher-ed institutions. But several colleges experimenting with such programs are avoiding a tactic that other public institutions are increasingly using to boost numbers: online learning.

That’s the case in Tennessee—one of the first states to introduce a free college program, called Tennessee Promise—where advisors at some campuses steer students participating in the program away from online courses.

Students entering their first year in Tennessee Promise aren’t prohibited from taking online courses, says Judy Lowe, assistant vice president for academic resources and testing at Chattanooga State Community College. However, she and other officials at Chattanooga State worry that sending students straight into online courses might hurt their chances of success.

The concern, Lowe says, is that a first-semester students in the program may need more in-person support than online courses may provide. Unlike most four-year institutions, community colleges often do not require standardized tests such as the ACT or SAT to enroll, and are designed to accept students who may not have high enough GPAs to be admitted into a competitive institution.

The experience students have in their first semester "could be their success or their downfall," says Lowe. “It comes back to the design of their online course… As soon as you deliver courses that are lower quality, then students who are less motivated will fall by the wayside. It's the same for any distance learning.”

The number of students enrolled in online courses at Chattanooga State Community College has increased over the years, Lowe says. Currently around 30 percent of students at Chattanooga State Community College take at least one online course. But she’s not convinced that those numbers have been heavily influenced by Tennessee Promise, and says the college did not make a concerted effort to increase those offerings in preparation for an enrollment boost from the free college program.

Instead, Lowe says the program is expected to bring in more students to make up for declining enrollments at community colleges in the state.

A common concern and criticism of free community college programs is that simply stripping away tuition costs may not be enough to get underserved students to a degree. But the Tennessean recently reported that the first class of students to participate in Tennessee Promise showed that 21.5 percent of students who started the program in 2015 graduated within five semesters, about 7 percent higher than the 2014 class.

Pushing students away from online courses that first semester may be part of that outcome, but Lowe says it’s more likely a combination of things. At the same time that Tennessee Promise rolled out, Chattanooga State Community College also overhauled its developmental-education program.

Similar to Tennessee Promise, a free community college program is currently underway at City College San Francisco, where residents can take free classes if they have lived in the city for more than one year.

Online enrollment is also increasing at the college, but Donna Reed, dean of library and learning resources, says it hasn’t been tied to the school’s 16 percent enrollment growth since rolling out the two-year pilot program. Instead, she thinks that online offerings are growing as part of other strategies to get more students enrolled. Previously, the college saw a sharp decline in enrollment after a threat to the college’s accreditation, and now she says the whole campus is in “growth mode,” and getting more strategic about online offerings is part of that.

Students enrolled in Free City in San Francisco aren’t discouraged from taking online courses. But eligibility requirements may serve a similar deterrent. In order to qualify for Free City, students must be full time and take at least 12 credits per semester. For working students or those who otherwise can’t enroll full time, the program isn’t an easy option.

The situation is different in New York, which offers its own free tuition program called the Excelsior Scholarship. Rather than using the program to regain its lost enrollment numbers like in San Francisco, New York faces a seat shortage that has prevented students from taking required courses. Officials from the state previously told EdSurge that online courses would be used as a way to relieve a “bottleneck” caused by existing seat shortages and anticipated enrollment growth from the scholarship.

In Maryland, lawmakers recently passed a bill to create a free college program as well. Similar to both San Francisco and Tennessee, the program requires that students enroll in at least 12 credit hours. But in Maryland, one of the newest proposed free college programs in the country, it’s unclear what role online will play.

Bernard Sadusky, executive director of Maryland Association of Community Colleges, says there are no plans at this stage to discourage students from taking digital courses at the get-go. “We haven’t had that discussion,” he says.

However, he echoes of Lowe’s concerns. “We are open access institutions. Consequently, we have students who will come to community colleges because they haven’t had a sterling academic record.” That doesn’t mean the students can’t do the work, he stresses, but “a good portion of our students need that reinforcement in the classroom.”

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