Photo: Calbright College

Calbright College is the keystone of public online education in California: A single, recognizable organization purposefully designed to create accessible, free training programs for workers who are being left behind in the dual wakes of automation and fundamental changes in the labor market.

Right now, we’re living through one of the most volatile, disruptive events the world economy has ever faced. It’s critical that there be a free, public online education option for the millions of Californians who are already experiencing or teetering on the edge of unemployment.

Pitting the traditional community colleges against the newest community college, as critics of Calbright seek to do, is not how we improve prospects for Californians who need jobs. Energy spent attempting to close down our state’s biggest investment in online education, to shutter a school with career re-skilling in its DNA amid economic catastrophe, is energy ill spent.

Each of the 115 California Community Colleges has, to some degree, online education programming and the need to move to distance learning during the pandemic has expanded those programs in the past few weeks.

With Calbright, the state’s sole online-only community college, California is leveraging both our local community colleges’ ability to offer these online courses while building through Calbright a leading-edge, affordable, quality online educational experience that supports unreached, low-wage, and unemployed adult students. We need all options on the table now.

To be clear, faculty and students across the California Community College system have risen to the occasion and demonstrated their resilience during the coronavirus pandemic, but fault lines have appeared: students lack access to technology, familiarity with remote work and few clear pathways to career readiness in this new world.

We need to address those fault lines. We also need training for those juggling child-care responsibilities with multiple jobs in the gig economy or service industry, for single mothers and busy parents who struggle to find the time or financial resources to attend a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

They are best addressed collaboratively, informed by the Calbright research into how students learn best in an online learning environment. Calbright can deliver immediate, quality job training programs directly to Californians, to keep California’s economy vibrant.

Without Calbright College to serve as the online, skilled-based education research and development arm for our nation’s largest higher education system, we put California at a tremendous disadvantage. We’ve seen this before. The last recession generated a wave of displaced workers flooding into for-profit schools and academies that left many with unaffordable debts and worthless credentials.

Also during the last recession the California Community Colleges sustained $1.5 billion in budget cuts from 2008 to 2012, according to a 2013 Public Policy Institute of California report. Those cuts translated into a drastic decline in access — ejecting 600,000 students from higher education. That, in turn, meant the state’s workforce was unprepared for the job boom in the recession’s aftermath.

We can’t intentionally leave those who are trapped in service industry jobs, gig economy laborers, and the unemployed at the mercy of for-profit or out-of-state-educational alternatives, many of which are interested in transferring what should be public investments into private profits.

As we speak, Calbright is starting to hire essential faculty. We’re focused on growing our capacity so we can begin to meet what will soon be overwhelming training needs in the wake of the pandemic.

Though we are still in an early research-and-development phase with a limited first cohort of students, we are built to scale up and react nimbly to acute training needs. Online skills-based education’s moment is now, and the need for quality programming is obvious and immediate. Let’s learn from the past, and not put Californians at a disadvantage for no reason.

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Ajita Menon is the interim president and CEO of Calbright College, the California Community College system’s sole online-only college.

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