California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, in a phone call with reporters, praised the “significant investment in the millions of stranded workers who need better skills and a college credential to gain a better foothold in this economy.”

If approved by the Legislature in June, the plan will make $100 million available over seven years for California’s community college system to launch the online school, as well as another $20 million annually to run it. But officials are working on an aggressive time line to enroll students in the first classes by fall 2019.

Other details are scant so far, but early offerings may focus on advanced manufacturing, health care services and childhood development. Oakley pitched the online community college as a cheaper alternative to the “many for-profits that have their sights set on these learners,” which have faced extensive criticism for saddling students with massive debt and few job prospects. Several prominent for-profit chains have shuttered in recent years amid government scrutiny.

Oakley said the community colleges have “learned a lot about how to best deliver online education” since launching their own online courses five years ago. A third of students in the system now take at least one class online, he said, and the success rate gap has nearly closed, with more than 60 percent of students passing their online course, compared to about 70 percent of students with in-person instruction.

The online college will target working adults without a higher education degree, offering short courses and certificate programs based on skills that employers are looking for and students need for career advancement. In his budget press conference Wednesday, Brown called it an “opportunity to improve their lives.”

Brown has been a major proponent of online higher education during his return to the governorship, pushing the University of California and California State University to develop more courses. But his most high-profile initiative, a 2013 pilot at San Jose State University, was scrapped after pass rates lagged far behind students taking traditional classes.

He pointed to U.S. Census estimates that California has 2.5 million adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a high school diploma but no college degree. Those workers are particularly vulnerable during an economic recession, Oakley said, but may not have the flexibility to attend a traditional community college. The online option will give them a way to expand their wage-earning potential on their own time, he added, as they continue to work.

California will launch a new community college completely online next year, under a $100 million initiative included in Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest budget proposal.

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