The Largest EdTech Startup You’ve Never Heard Of

The California Community College system recently funded the largest online education startup in the United States.

The most famous higher education system in the world is the Ivy League, the eight, elite Universities that include Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Consider then that the Ivy League only serves around 100,000 students per year.

In contrast is the less famous, but arguably more important, American Association of Community Colleges. The AACC has over 1,100 colleges and serves over 7,000,000 students per year. Community colleges, and their graduates, are the educational backbone of the United States, with over 70 times the footprint of the Ivy League.

The largest community college system, and in fact, the largest system of higher education in the United States and second largest is the world, is the California Community Colleges (CCC). Here are just a few mind-blowing stats about the scale of the CCC.

  • 2.1 million students served per year
  • 114 campuses spread across the state
  • Over 25% of ALL U.S. students enrolled in community college attend the CCC
  • CCC trains 70% of all nurses, and 80% of all firefighters, police officers, and EMTs in California

Despite its scope and scale, the CCC has identified a major gap in its educational offerings: too few working adults are able to attend the CCC in order to get a certificate or associate’s degree. These adults are past the traditional college-going age of 18-24, and already have busy lives working and taking care of their families. For many of these adults, taking time off to attend college is an economic impossibility.


These potential students are California’s “Stranded Workers“: 2.5 million working adults, without any college education, who increasingly require more advanced skills to participate in today’s economy, but lack the time and resources to attend a CCC campus.

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To help serve this enormous population of young, working adults, the CCC and California Governor Jerry Brown proposed the creation of a new, virtual, community college district, called the California Online Community College (“Online College”) in 2016.

The Largest EdTech Startup

If 2016 was the “founding date” of the Online College, it took nearly two years to overcome the political obstacles necessary to obtain funding. The largest obstacle came primarily from existing CCC faculty, who lobbied to expand online offerings at existing colleges rather than building something from scratch. Other legislators were unconvinced that “stranded workers” were unable to attend existing community colleges, or that the Online University was even needed.

Despite these challenges, the Online College has been heavily supported by Governor Brown, who noted that the idea is “a no-brainer, it is obvious, it is inevitable, it is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped”. Unsurprisingly, as budget approval for the new Online College was imminent this summer, the Academic Senate for the Community Colleges dropped all opposition to its creation. The new and approved 2018-2019 state budget confirmed that the Online College will move forward as the 115th Community College District, and will offer online education only beginning in the Fall of 2019.

With approved funding of $120 million for next year alone (the “Series A”), the Online College is effectively the biggest startup in higher education. With promised funding from the State of California of at least $240 million over the next 7 years, the Online College will be similar in scale to Coursera, which has raised $210 million over 6 years, and Udacity, which has raised $160 million over 7 years.

Not only is it the biggest higher-ed startup, but compared to similar public colleges, it will be one of the most innovative as well. The Online College plans to incorporate several innovations that are only recently starting to percolate through higher-ed in the United States.

  • Course completion will be based on competency rather than time in seat. Unlike most colleges that use a quarterly or semester-based credit system, the Online College will use online assessments to determine competency in a given subject matter. If you demonstrate competency, you can move through the coursework as quickly as you want, rather than being forced to follow a predetermined schedule.
  • Course offerings will be decoupled from a semester system, allowing students to enroll in courses throughout the year.
  • Students will be tested prior to enrollment to assess their current knowledge level in relevant subjects, helping them avoid wasting time on material they already know.

The Online College initially plans to offer three “learning pathways” that will lead to marketable industry credentials: medical coding, information technology, and supervisor training for jobs in retail and government. The CCC Chancellor, Eloy Oakley, expects the Online College to enroll 25,000 to 30,000 students during its first year of operation.

Private Sector Validation

The Online College has already received a vote of confidence for its proposed education model. Yesterday, the Online College Foundation received a grant from Walmart for $2.4 million to develop the supervisor credential specifically. Walmart also awarded two additional grants to Code for America and EdX, two pioneering startups in the public service and education space, putting the Online College in good company. The grant funding dovetails nicely with Walmarts existing initiative to provide $1 / day college education opportunities for its associates. Collaboration with Dignity Health for the medical coding pathway curriculum is also already underway.

Time with tell whether this novel experiment in online learning will achieve its ambitious goals. However, with funding secured and industry partnerships underway, the only thing missing for the Online College at the moment is a new CEO.

So, if you’re in the market to lead the country’s largest EdTech startup, give Chancellor Oakley a call…

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Micah is the author of Rethink the MBA. He works and lives in Silicon Valley.