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Providing Adults Free Courses Online: It Can Be Done (Part 2)

With state funding, the San Diego Community College District is able to provide flexible—and more importantly free—education to adults in the state of California. 

For decades, non-credit education has been stigmatized and de-valued. What people don’t realize is the great opportunity that non-credit can provide working adults looking to upskill or reskill to advance their careers. By having flexible and professional education, these students are more likely to become lifelong learners. What’s more, San Diego has found a way to provide this education at zero cost—something that other districts can also look into. In the second of a two-part series, Carlos Cortez discusses the stigma around non-credit education, how to connect with adult workers to deliver them the best student experience, and how to scale that Amazon-like experience not only across cities but across the state. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Where did the stigma around non-credit education come from?

Carlos Cortez (CC): Frankly, we need to change the name. The idea of non-credit suggests that it’s not accredited. We are 100% fully accredited.  It’s a rigorous approval process. What’s different is that in most districts, about 25% of schools don’t offer any non-credit education.

Most other districts stopped during the recession. Non-credit was reduced considerably because these programs are often regarded as nonessential, or frankly, the students they serve are often regarded as less essential. If you go back to the origins of non-credit, it started in California in 1856 for Chinese immigrants in San Francisco to learn secretarial skills. In 1858, Sacramento created non-credit ESL courses for Chinese students. From its inception, non-credit has always been available in the United States for immigrant and refugee populations. Fast forward to the 1970s, and the federal government came in with a huge investment in state education at all levels. Particularly, for non-credit adult education in an attempt to Americanize immigrants from the Pacific Rim and Latin America that were coming to this country in large numbers in the mid 1900s.

Right after that influx, there was a demarcation between credit and non-credit under Governor Reagan. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a political subtext there that these students are less important and therefore should be funded less. Fast forward: weget equalized funding for non-credit in 2015. You would think that stigmatization would go away, but we still treat the faculty differently. Even though we are paying the courses the same, in most colleges that have non-credit, they do not have any full-time faculty. All the non-credit staff are part-time, so they do not even have seats at the table. They are not part of governance; they are not making strategic planning decisions.

A way we can incentivize that is to either get more apportionment from the state or take the existing apportionment and see the need for more intensive jobs. The districts who are willing to do this will then get the extra enrollment. You would have to show that you are going to get people in jobs that pay more than $50,000. To me, that has been the biggest disconnect. There seems to be a lack of people—not only in California, but across our systems nationally—not using their influence to deploy resources accordingly. 

Evo: How are you connecting with and supporting working adults to make sure that you’re delivering a highly student centric experience?

CC: We insist that our organization meet and exceed our accreditation requirements—free is our primary selling point. Nothing catches attention more than that word, and we know this from our marketing efforts. If we include free career training on a billboard or in an online ad, the traffic on that ad far exceeds anything others exponentially, regardless of the language, or type of advertising. When I became President of San Diego Continuing Education, we weren’t allowed to put the word free anywhere. We were told the public would get upset and think it a misuse of public funds. But if the public is paying for it, shouldn’t they know about it? That has been a big push in the last couple of years. We were also told that we could not advertise in other languages, but by advertising in other languages, we reach more students. Over half of my students were born outside the United States, and English was not the first language for more than two-thirds of my students. 

Adult non-credit has no residency requirement. You have to live in the state of California, but you do not have to be a legal resident of the United States. Anyone who walks in our door, we serve. Not providing that information in multiple languages is a real disservice. We are one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the world, particularly representing some of the rarer immigrant and refugee populations here. 

To connect with adult workers, it is important to provide free, flexible and professionally produced course content. Courses can be short-term intensives with multiple points of entry and included in a stackable certificate pathway. You have to provide open educational resources, mandatory live, face-to-face and synchronous class meetings and programming. It is also important to engage with industry and to maintain an overall focus on careers that lead to livable wages. 

In many cases, courses feed into the district credit colleges for academic credit.  Most importantly, developing a robust quality experience that has not only dynamic instructional experience but also exhaustive student resources and tools built into this online ecosystem. From assessment to registration to career placement, our goal is to provide students with a Cadillac experience and to treat them with the same dignity that I was treated with when I enrolled at Georgetown, at New York University and at Harvard. I came from poor, working-class roots, and every time I walked into one of these orientations, information sessions and move-in days, it was red carpet treatment. There were picnics, balloons and schwag. These educational institutions made me feel special. It amazes me that we don’t think about doing the same for our public education students, the way that for-profits and non-for-profit private educational organizations do.

Evo: How do you scale that Cadillac experience not only across a particular municipality, but also statewide in response to the lack of programming available to most areas in California.

CC: We are not allowed to do it so deliberately across the state because we do have a service area that is confined to our designated district boundaries–the city of San Diego. Our boundaries with the community college district define our service area. That said, when I became the President of San Diego Continuing Education, we were less than 1% online. When COVID-19 closed our campuses, we were less than 7% online. Now, we are 100% online. Most of the effort was a quick fix to simply move programming online as quickly as possible. Now with the launch of ICOM Academy, we will have 16 certificates and 32 courses. So, roughly 20% of our career education programs are now going to be offered 100% online. Students–for the first time–can complete the entire process, from onboarding, registration and enrollment, to career and college transition online virtually. We now have the capacity to serve students anywhere in the state.

Anyone in this state could enroll in our courses; however, we are not able to market the courses to them. I have no doubt that in short order when individuals in Yucaipa, Riverside, Sacramento and Eureka start Googling for cybersecurity and mobile app development certificates, they will find us. They can take a two-course certificate online for free, which can take only three to six months to complete. 

The alternative is your local UC Extension or $3,000, for a two or three-year associate degree, but there is going to be increased interest in what we are doing. There are multiple opportunities on the horizon. At the end of the recession, the California Community College System developed the Online Education Initiative, which is a database for all online credit courses. 

The only online, non-credit courses in the state are ours, so we will be in the database. As of January, our 31 courses will be in OEI pending critical faculty approval. This is an important “pending”. Our inclusion in OEI will create a space wherein anyone from the state can learn more about online offerings in non-credit, which will begin to drive enrollment into our organization. 

In order to scale, there needs to be an investment in resources at the state level in intensive non-credit expansion. Either the governor, the state legislature or the state chancellor—somebody has to put their foot down to see that we are in a very special time. To take advantage of this time, devise and push districts into developing this type of programming because it is desperately needed.

Evo: What do you think will characterize what our industry will look like in say five to 10 years? What will differentiate institutions and programs and what it’ll take to get these already highly discerning customers engaged with any given institution over another?

CC: I don’t know what the future looks like, but I do have certain hopes. That’s how ICOM Academy came to be. We have very thoughtfully and deliberately taken five years to do this because we know how important the stakes are. There was a lot of pressure to build online content, but I was not going to simply throw things online. It is about the quality of the experience. 

All too often, administrators make big decisions without ever spending time in a classroom. There is a huge disconnect there. Many have not been faculty before, which makes it harder to have a full understanding of what students need. At the end of the day, the core of what we do is teaching and learning. To not have an understanding and appreciation of that makes it very difficult for us as administrators to then create the conditions in which work can thrive.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about this shift towards student centric online education and where we’re going as a career education industry?

CC: It’s hard to see where we are heading. I was nervous when we set out to launch ICOM Academy, especially as we headed toward the finish line. When I started the process of inviting faculty, I took a carrot approach. Instead of forcing change, I tried to create conditions in which change could occur. So, I invited faculty to participate. They needed to agree to face-to-face sessions and collaborative work. So, there were new requirements, and I had three groups of faculty step forward to meet them. Our goal was to launch three certificates this fall. Now, we are up to offering 16, as long as money and resources keep coming in.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.