CSAC to Examine Impact of “Wild West” Online Degrees on Cal Grants

At a time of limited funds for college financial aid, should Cal Grants cover all online degree programs as an economical way to make state dollars stretch further? Would such a policy-change divert resources that would deliver better educational value to students at brick-and-mortar campuses?

The California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) will examine this issue in depth during a two-day hearing on Feb. 23 and 24. The roster of speakers represents experts and interests ranging from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office and education accreditation agencies to online education providers, student organizations, state higher education institutions and more.

CSAC oversees the distribution of more than a billion dollars annually to California's college and university students. Participating Cal Grant institutions must have a physical presence in California. Some have argued that degrees offered by distance learning institutions, like the Western Governors University which requires no physical campus, have made such a restriction obsolete and counterproductive.

Others, however, are concerned about the quality of education that students may receive in what many see as an emerging "Wild West" of higher education – a frontier where anything goes and not much is regulated.

"The Commissioners could not duck this issue even if they wanted to," said Barry Keene, former State Senator and Chair of the California Student Aid Commission. "If student aid dollars entrusted to us are not used cost-effectively, there could be a tremendous backlash from taxpayers and from academically qualified students whose access to higher education depends on Cal Grants."

Keene noted that distance learning costs far less than traditional campus-based teaching, thus appealing to financially strapped public universities. It is also attractive to for-profit institutions that see the combination of guaranteed funding from student aid and low-cost online education as a huge money-making opportunity. However, concerns about academic quality and rigor regarding the learning reflected by an online degree may cause many to question whether there is sufficient oversight in place to protect students from a poor quality education.

"We cannot let waste happen, either through lack of support for an efficient way to deliver education or through the careless extension of funding to an innovative but unregulated alternative to campus-based coursework," said Keene. "This is especially critical at a time when businesses are crying for trained workers and people are often desperate to find jobs. The Cal Grant program works, which is why it has been supported by Republicans and Democrats, business and labor. We need to maintain their trust."

The CSAC hearing is designed to spotlight the issues for the public, provide informed advice to lawmakers, and lay the foundation for any needed regulatory measures for the protection of Cal Grants.

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