Scaling Educational Access

There’s an interesting piece in EdSurge about the potential access to education challenge that CUNY will face if Governor Cuomo makes good on his proposal to make college tuition free:

According to the CUNY 2016 Student Experience Survey, 21 percent of the system’s community college students were not able to take required courses, most citing “lack of seat availability” as the reason. In an interview, George Otte, CUNY’s director of academic technology, described the “bottleneck” created by course shortages. Students were not able to take required courses because demand for space exceeded capacity—a problem that could get worse if more free tuition-seekers pour in. “We have always had lots of enrollment, which is one of the reasons I think we were late to the online course offerings. Our mission was never to gain students from the outside,” he explains, “but we are just beginning to realize that this has an enormous impact on capacity.”

“The real challenge is that eligibility is predicated on full-time enrollment,” Otte says, citing a caveat community colleges cannot ignore. Without taking 15 hours a semester, which equals full-time enrollment, students are not elible for Gov. Cuomo’s free tuition program—the Excelsior Scholarship. However, at least half of community college students work full-time. It is unlikely that such a population can opt-in to campus-based instruction that requires them to commute and show up for courses offered only at, say, 9 a.m. or 4 p.m.

It turns out that we’ve done a lot of work in this area, particularly in the state of California, and have some lessons learned that are worth sharing.

Part I: Is Access the Problem or the Solution?

In 2012 and 2013, California governor Jerry Brown succeeded in getting voters to approve an historic tax increase for education and increased the budgets for the state college and university systems. Within months, those systems promptly turned around and proposed to raise tuition. This created a showdown between the Governor’s office and the leadership of the systems. Governor Brown felt that raising tuition defeated the purpose of the hard-won budget increases, which were intended to shore up California’s historic commitment to providing affordable access to high-quality education for all students in the state. In response, he began publicly courting Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun. His not-so-subtle argument was that if the public colleges and universities can’t provide affordable access, then Silicon Valley can. (Remember, this was 2012-2013, so it was right at the peak of the MOOC hype.) Naturally, this was not received well on the other side of the negotiating table. Meanwhile, California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushed a bill called SB520, which would follow through on the Governor’s threat to force the systems to accept credit from for-profit educational companies like the MOOC providers.

The 20 Million Minds Foundation recruited us to step into the middle of this mess and see if we could help mediate.[1] (At that time, the foundation was run by Dean Florez, the former California State Senate Majority Leader who still had strong ties to both the legislature and the Governor’s office.) First, we facilitated a conversation at UCLA that involved leadership from the various systems, politicians, representation from faculty unions and senates, and various outside experts. After hearing what everybody had to say, we went away for a bit and thought about what we had heard.

We came back with the white paper, The Right to Educational Access: Using Online Education to Address Bottleneck Courses in California. Our argument went something like this:

  1. All parties agree that universal access to education is a critical goal for the State of California.
  2. Particularly in a system where the cost of a student education is subsidized, students who take a long time to finish or don’t finish at all are particularly costly. They soak up more tax dollars and more state and Federal financial aid while taking up seats that other students could take.
  3. Addresssing the bottleneck course problem should therefore both improve access and reduce budgetary pressure.
  4. One simple mechanism for driving toward these complementary goals would be to declare that students have a right to educational access, by which we mean that if students are accepted by a public college or university then that institution has an obligation to ensure the student has access to the courses necessary to graduate in a timely manner.
  5. There are many ways in which individual institutions could solve their bottleneck course problems, which could be driven by a variety of factors (e.g., physical plant limitations, lack of sufficient faculty to teach a course, etc.). Insitutions should be given latitude to solve their bottleneck course problems in whatever way is most appropriate to their circumstances, through technological or non-technological means.
  6. However, if an institution fails to solve its bottleneck course problem, and it failed to provide the students access to equivalent courses from peer institutions, then, as a safetly measure students would have the right to get credit from other sources, up to and including appropriately vetted courses from for-profit entities.


CUNY finds itself looking at the bottleneck course problem for somewhat different reasons that make the relationship between access and cost even more interesting. The potentially enormous influx of new students is forcing the system to think about access problems that were previously not quite acute enough to get the system’s full attention in the same way that they are getting now. To the degree that access problems and time-to-degree or degree completion problems are linked, the state benefits financially from increasing access, thereby reducing the taxpayers’ cost per student.

Part II: The Road to Collaboration is Through Procurement

SB520 never passed in California, in large part because the Governor and the systems negotiated compromises. (It’s unclear whether SB520 was ever really serious or just a hammer to force everybody to the bargaining table.) Out of all that emerged (among other things) a five-year $56.9 million funding allocation to create the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative (OEI), which Governor Brown has since supplemented for a total of $76.9 million. (The Cal State and UC systems also got funding.)

One of the big goals of OEI was to create a course exchange where students facing bottleneck courses at one California community college could take that course online in another. These exchanges also help to solve the mirror-image problem of underenrollment, where courses become more expensive to offer—sometimes prohibitively more expensive—because not enough students at the institution want or need to take them.

This may seem obvious and simple, but there are all kinds of barriers to doing it well, from getting reciprocity agreements across colleges so that credit will transfer to handling enrollment and financial aid paperwork to making the student experience of taking courses across multiple colleges simple enough to be usable and practical. OEI decided the best way to kick off the project was to develop a statewide inter-campus process for selecting common (opt-in) technology infrastructure, beginning with the LMS. Both product and process were important. On the product side, sharing common infrastructure made it easier to share courses across campuses. (Likewise, support and professional development services count as critical common “infrastructure.”) On the process side, a well-run selection process would build bonds of trust and collaboration among the campuses that would be necessary for establishing the course exchanges.

To their credit, OEI ran a very transparent process; you can dive as deep as you want into their reasoning, process, and output. We played a role in producing or co-producing some of those artifacts. For example, you can read a report that we co-wrote with OEI’s Michelle Pillati on the value of a common LMS. Or watch an explainer video on how the overall project, from tool selection to course exchange, served the goal of increased system-wide collaboration:


(This is one of series of three explainer videos on the topic of course exchanges.)

Or you can watch a webinar with Phil, Pat James—executive director of OEI)—and Anna Stirling—director of @ONE training and professional development.(@ONE is providing key elements of OEI’s faculty and student support services.)


The common theme across all these artifacts is that, through OEI, the California Community Colleges set complementary goals of increased student access to education, increased inter-campus cooperation, and increased system-wide fiscal responsibility. They used the infrastructure procurement process to help achieve those goals by creating a social fabric and common technology substrate for cross-institutional collaboration to work.

From the information that we can glean via the EdSurge article mentioned at the top of this post, it looks like CUNY may be charting a similar course.

But the larger point is that, while separate stakeholder groups may be differentially concerned with access, taxpayer cost, and technology infrastructure procurement, these issues are often best addressed together.

  1. Note: All of the examples I’ll be citing were paid consulting engagements for us. We don’t usually do that, but these happen to all have been previously public anyway, and we do write about engagements when they are out in the open.

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