Nursing students in the Peralta Community College District in Oakland.

By Colleen O’Connor

Gov. Jerry Brown’s idea for an online-only community college is brilliant.

Though controversial among brick-and-mortar and old-school thinkers, the online-only community college could be the legacy that eclipses his father’s legendary University of California expansion.

Open to all. Possibly free to all. And unrestricted by the academic calendar.

As envisioned by the governor, California’s existing community colleges would continue with their mission, but the online-only college would fast track workforce  programs for everyone who aspires to improve themselves. Available statewide, nationally, and even internationally.

The online-only community college also provides a futuristic remedy to existing problems. As well as easy and equal access to California’s greatest wealth producing asset—it’s people.

Any student can enroll anywhere, anytime, for any course. All great options for non-traditional students hoping to achieve the goal of earning a decent family-supporting income.

As a true ex-Jesuit seminarian, Brown believes in the exponential power of education. And that it is wrong to hoard, stifle, or inhibit knowledge. Even more so in the age of the innovation economy, robotics and high-tech revolution.

He has asked the chancellor of California community college system to “take whatever steps are necessary” to make the online-only community college a reality.  More specifically, to “create a plan to design and deploy a fully online college” and submit it his office by November.

The potential is enormous. Just imagine it.

And here is the best suggestion to guarantee an instant inaugural success: start with nursing.

According to CNN, “There are currently about three million nurses in the United States. The country will need to produce more than one million new registered nurses by 2022 to fulfill its health care needs.”

Yet, the schools cannot meet the demand.

Last year alone, “nursing schools turned away more than 56,000 qualified applicants from undergraduate nursing programs.”

In San Diego, home to superior four-year registered nurse degree programs at San Diego State University, the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University, plus two-year programs at the community colleges, the waiting list for admissions is nevertheless often years’ long.

This is unacceptable.

Enter the online-only college.

Brown should quickly launch the online project to help licensed vocational nurses, or LVNs, become registered nurses, or RNs.

It’s an idea similar in scope to China’s legendary “barefoot doctor” project decades ago.

In order to provide vaccinations and hygiene to over 540 million people, many suffering from schistosomiasis and other infectious diseases—and unwilling to wait years for traditionally trained medical doctors’ availability—Chairman Mao ordered the recruitment of thousands of peasants to learn basic health-care procedures.

He then sent these “barefoot doctors” to the countryside to vaccinate and educate others. The “barefoot doctors” model became a quick solution to China’s pressing medical problem.

A fast-track LVN to 2-year RN online-only college program could be even more successful.

This is not a rehash of the community college baccalaureate workforce degree program—now in pilot program testing mode.  Nor is it the replay of the courageous idea for community colleges to take on a 4-year RN program.

That ship has sailed.

This is a real chance to solve the current shortage of registered nurses—not just in California, but potentially in the “nursing deserts” of many other states. An LVN already posses the necessary clinical training. They lack about one year of course work to become an RN—all of which can be completed online.

Many LVNs are single heads of households. As a 2-year RN, their income would increase substantially—as much as double the salary. And they could do their course work in the safety of their own home, while not neglecting children or other responsibilities.

The online-only community college could bridge the divide between those affluent enough to pay for and attend for-profit universities, or who can attend public colleges, and those who are too encumbered by finances and family duties for traditional classroom training.

Already community colleges in Arnold, MD, and Flint, MI, offer accelerated 2-year RN programs for “qualified paramedics or veterans to be admitted straight into the second year of the two-year program.”

The need is there. The talent is there. The online-only community college idea could bring them together quickly. We would all benefit.

Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.

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