Even as concerns mount that too many of our nation’s children are unprepared for and not attending college, thousands of students in California are clamoring each year for such a college experience in the state’s university system.

Unfortunately for them, the California State University system announced it will cut back its total enrollment by about 10,000 students next fall. That is 10,000 students to whom California is now saying in essence, “Maybe college isn’t that important for you after all.” Talk about a mixed message.

Increasingly, policymakers, foundations, academics, and educators are lining up behind the goal of students not just graduating from high school, but also graduating ready for a postsecondary education. The Gates Foundation places its muscle squarely behind this goal. Academics point out that now, more than ever before, a postsecondary education is necessary to command a reasonable wage in the workforce. And educators like Larry Rosenstock, CEO of High Tech High in San Diego, speak persuasively about the need for students to graduate well prepared for college.

Judging from attendance in the full-time and part-time programs at California State University campuses, many students are getting the message. Roughly 460,000 students are enrolled this year.  But if this number is capped at 450,000 for next year, realization of the college-ready goal will be an empty pledge.

Chancellor Charles Reed said the need to scale back enrollment was caused because of a strain on the university’s physical plant. Thanks to overcrowding and under-funding, he said, there are simply not enough classrooms and other resources available to provide students with a quality education that can promise them an on-time graduation (“CSU to turn away 10,000 students,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11/18/2008).

Although the State University’s predicament and actions are perhaps understandable given the economy and falling endowment, there is a better solution for California’s children: attend college online.  Embracing online education for many students addresses the challenges the system faces, both financially and in terms of physical space.

Online learning is an affordable option. Tuition at Capella University, an online, accredited university, for example, runs to $930 for a 3-credit Bachelor of Science course. That figure does not take into account any financial aid or scholarship grants. At UMassOnline, an online division of the University of Massachusetts, undergraduate courses range from $425 to $1,200 in cost regardless of a student’s residency. This often works out to be less costly than enrolling in and taking a full-time program at one of the University’s physical campuses.

North Carolina has come up with a different creative option. Its Learn and Earn Online program allows students to take college courses online when they are in high school and earn an associate degree or up to two years of college credits.

Online learning at the postsecondary level is booming as students find it to be a great option for their needs. The University of Phoenix is perhaps the best-known disruptor in the space. Its online enrollment has grown rapidly. According to the Babson Survey Research Group, the percentage of students at U.S. postsecondary institutions taking at least one online course doubled between 2002 and 2006. The rapid growth has continued as 3.9 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2007 term.

With California facing an increasingly gloomy fiscal future, it is time to figure out innovative ways to do more with less. The concerns of California’s children must be paramount as we consider different options. There are many opportunities that the introduction of online learning offers—not only for those being turned away from the system but also for those admitted currently to the CSU system. Online learning streamlines the delivery of learning, which can increase its quality and consistency. It is affordable. And it allows for customization for an individual’s needs.

Don’t slam the door in these would-be students’ faces. Open up a learning pathway for them that has no doors at all.

– Michael B. Horn


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.