One of the most exciting things about online education is the idea that it will provide access to good quality higher education to everybody. That no matter who you are, what your income may be, and where you live in the world, you can take high caliber courses online, receive an excellent education, and set yourself up for a successful career.
That promise is real, but it doesn’t happen by accident. The evidence is clear that online education has to be specifically designed to reach different communities. If not, it runs the risk of being unable to support non-traditional learners – exactly the students who often struggle to access higher education. system.
The newest evidence for that comes from Education Dynamics’ 2023 Online College Students Report. According to the report: “Undergraduate online college students are most often single, white women between 19-23 years of age who are not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin and have no children living at home. About half are employed full time…with a median household income of $51,250. They are not the first in their family to enroll in college and about half live in suburban areas throughout the country.”
It’s great that people are finding the education they want, but this isn’t exactly breaking down educational barriers or helping include new populations.
None of this is unusual, however: it’s been clear for years that EdTech is often overhyped. More importantly, it’s been clear for years that innovations in EdTech are often designed by people who have had success in the education system, for populations that are already successful in the education system. As a recent article in The Hechinger Report noted:
“When tech companies build products for schools, they either partner with schools that are in affluent, predominantly white suburban areas or lean on the educational experience of their employees” in the tech industry.
Writing about the Education Dynamics’ report in Forbes, Derek Newton, Vice-President of the Century Foundation, said that persistent issues like this made him despair about the future of online education to live up to its potential.
“We were promised that universal online competition would increase diversity offerings and quality while lowering price,” he wrote. “We expected that online college options would let every college reach any student in any corner of the planet. I remember reading about how online college would allow people to go to Harvard while living in caves in Afghanistan. People actually wrote that.”
He concludes that “There’s nothing wrong with primarily serving majority populations with means or serving primarily local students who can drive to campus in less than an hour.
At the same time, maybe we should slow down in telling ourselves that online learning is the great democratizer of education, how it’s affording opportunity to those without it, how it’s sparking a global marketplace of innovation and improvement. Based on the data, it’s not. At least not yet.”
Online Education Works For The People It’s Designed For
Newton is right about the big picture: online education, as an industry, has not yet kept its promise to make a great education available to everyone. But Calbright College is proving that if you design an online college with specific populations in mind, you can reach them. Even if they’re traditionally disenfranchised.
Where the Education Dynamics report finds that 70% of online undergraduate students are white, and the vast majority are under 25, Calbright is an online community college with very different demographics:
- More than 90% of Calbright students are at least 25 years old, and 41% are over 40
- Calbright students are almost evenly split between men and women
- A third are parents
- The majority are unemployed or working part time
- Over 70% of students identify as a member of the BIPOC community
Calbright is reaching a vastly different, and far more diverse, student population than most online education programs.
A Carefully Designed Free Online Community College Can Reach Students Others Can’t
That isn’t an accident. Calbright understands that “online education isn’t just one thing,” but can be designed to meet the needs of specific populations. That doesn’t just mean offering the right classes or “being online,” it means making sure every aspect of our system is focused on the needs of our target population of students.
That means Calbright focuses on getting students from all across California – not just the areas that are already well served by community colleges. 27 of California’s 40 rural counties are represented in Calbright’s student body, and if a learner needs a laptop or wifi hotspot to access online courses, we provide them free of charge.
It means that we’re currently free to Californians, so price is not an obstacle and students who otherwise can’t afford to go to college can come here.
It means we understand that working adults, especially from traditionally marginalized populations, experience a number of obstacles that keep them from going to college, and that we work to remove the obstacles. Calbright students can study on their own schedules, at their own paces. We minimize the red tape and “hidden curriculum”, so interacting with our systems is easy. Applying is easy. Getting help in a class is easy.
It means our staff and faculty are available outside of normal business hours, and that students feel a sense of belonging and know that even if they’re studying remotely they don’t have to do it alone.
Because we design for the populations we want to serve, we reach them. Any successful online college must design for the population they want to reach. Otherwise, they’ll end up reaching the populations who need them least.