Edtech Companies Weigh In On Obama’s Free Community College Plan

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that career-minded individuals can pursue the skills needed by employers in their own regions. Companies can also conduct corporate training by buying packaged access to certain courses through Udemy for Business, Yang says.

But Yang acknowledges that edtech programs in general currently work best for motivated, savvy students, rather than those who need to fill in educational gaps that leave them unprepared for higher-level learning.

Pearson estimates that more than half of new students at two year colleges need remedial courses—as do almost 20 percent of students on their arrival at four-year institutions. Part of Pearson’s U.S. business is aimed at preventing those knowledge gaps with products to support Common Core, the challenging new K-12 educational standards being adopted in most states. One of the goals is to make young people better prepared for the 21st century workplace, which requires critical thinking skills as well as mastery of basic subjects such as English and math.

But that new K-12 educational initiative doesn’t help young people who have already finished their school years without gaining key skills.

If Obama succeeds in making community college free for two years, there could be an influx of new applicants needing remedial courses, says Jason Jordan, senior vice president of digital strategy at Pearson. “It would draw from a population that is not as academically prepared,” Jordan says.

At Ivy Tech and other community colleges, Pearson offers a resource called MyFoundationsLab to get students up to speed in reading, writing, and math. It’s designed to help anyone catch up, no matter how far behind they are. The starting point for the math sequence is not simple addition, but counting. In language arts, the starting point is not beginner’s reading, but letter recognition, Jordan says.

For many new students, the road to college readiness may not be that long, Jordan says. Their early schooling may not have been severely deficient. But many community college applicants are returning students, he says.

“The average age of a community college student is 27,” Jordan says. “You’re talking about a large percentage of the population coming back many years after they took their last class in high school.”

Some colleges run summer boot camps to get these students ready for class quickly using Pearson courseware, Jordan says.

But would Obama’s proposal create a bigger market for edtech companies that provide these remedial programs? It may not. Under the program, free tuition would only be provided to students enrolled in academic programs leading to credits accepted at four-year colleges and universities, or in occupational training programs that lead to degrees and certificates that are in high demand. Students would need to maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5. That’s about a C+. They would also have to attend school at least half-time.

The proposal appears to leave it to the states to fund better college readiness preparation in the public schools, and remedial coursework at community college.

However, Pearson’s product line covers other bases, including occupational training. Its workforce education unit develops courses that help community college students prepare for exams that lead to industry-created credentials, like those offered by NCCER, a non-profit educational foundation supported by the building construction industry, Sanchez says. Ivy Tech has access to Pearson occupational courseware in subjects that include construction, information technology, hospitality, and manufacturing, he says.

While Obama’s proposal for nationwide community college tuition support may not fly due to partisan politics in Washington, Sanchez says a market already exists for edtech companies supporting those schools. Both Republicans and Democrats in many states are recognizing the importance of workforce development to their economies, he says.

In the United States, Pearson is a partner to degree-granting colleges and universities. But globally, Pearson is part of an overall movement in edtech to develop credentialing models outside traditional college and university systems. Pearson offers instructional programs via mobile devices in countries with thin academic infrastructures. In the United Kingdom, Pearson is among the entities authorized to award credentials, he says.

“In some parts of the world, we do grant our own degrees,” Sanchez says.

While edtech companies might benefit if Obama’s community college proposal passes, they’re not necessarily waiting for governments to fully support the market for education that helps students get better jobs. Nor are they relying solely on traditional colleges.

“There’s a greater pressure for community colleges—or four year colleges—to look a student in the eye and say, ‘This degree leads to something,’ ” Sanchez says. “People are recognizing that alternative means of learning and validating knowledge are here to stay.”

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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One response to “Edtech Companies Weigh In On Obama’s Free Community College Plan”

  1. Michelle says:

    Interesting article. The NYEdtech Meetup is hosting a panel on Edtech at Community Colleges next Tuesday March 3rd http://www.meetup.com/NYEdTech/events/220624424/