When California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley outlined at a recent State Senate hearing the benefits of Governor Brown’s proposed online college, it was received as informative detail from lawmakers and policy observers.

For millions of Californians, it was music to their ears and hope for their futures.

That’s because the fully online college will focus on health care business systems, among others, an area where California employers are eager to gain an abundance of skilled and certified workers.

As a former medical billing support staffer, the health care focus is just what people like Juan Reynosa wanted to hear.

Juan, 36, is one of millions of California’s working adults whom the fully online college is designed for, providing flexible access to higher education that is essential for economic mobility and employment advancement.

The 115th California Community College campus would be fully online and devoted to providing skills enhancement to California’s stranded worker population; that is, 2 ½ million Californians aged 25 to 34 – more than 850,000 of whom live in Los Angeles County – with some or no college but who need skills to advance. And there are another 6 million aged 35 to 65 in the same position.

Juan knows firsthand that special health care billing and coding certification is desired by employers hungry for trained, capable staff and employees who want to gain more responsibility, management positions and pay increases in that field.

Juan wanted the credential, but working 40 hours a week and commuting to Los Angeles an hour each way disabled him from attending a brick-and-mortar college. For 80 percent of the stranded Californians also working full time, raising families or caring for relatives, the traditional academic model doesn’t fit and they are left unable to further their education.

Increasingly, employers are beginning to require special certifications, even though federal and state laws don’t necessarily require them…yet. In any case, our age of automation and artificial intelligence means that additional training for people currently doing the work is desired now more than ever.

A study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that 65 percent of the workforce will be required to have some form of a degree or credential by the year 2020. Two-thirds of those jobs will require less than an associate’s degree. As the economy evolves, so too must the skill level of the workforce if California is to remain the sixth-largest economy in the world.

What’s more, the troubling “skills gap” is concerning employers. It is felt even more acutely in the Latino-American community, which makes up 49 percent of California’s population yet includes only a small percentage of members who hold higher education degrees. There is an inequality in access to public higher education that this online college will finally address – but it’s not the first red flag to be waved.

A November 2005 report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems notes that the growth of California’s working-age population has been almost exclusively Latino-American and Asian-American. By 2020, it predicts, these two ethnic groups will comprise more than half of the population ages 25 to 64 – with Latinos equaling the white population at nearly 9 million.

Yet educational attainment among Latino males has actually declined, on average, since 1985 while increases occurred for the rest of the population. The resounding warning that has our collective attention is that the percentage of college-educated Californians will decline unless new avenues such as the online college are made widely available to all.

For Juan and 8 million others, the proposed online community college provides the chance to advance through a flexible, self-paced higher education opportunity.

Julian Canete is president and chief executive of the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.

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