Photo: Calbright College

California Assembly and Senate leaders moved Wednesday to eliminate Calbright College, the state’s online two-year institution.

The college, which opened in October, has faced an onslaught of criticism and courted controversy since it was first proposed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. The legislature reached an agreement on the state budget that included defunding and redirecting more than $100 million to support other needs in the 115-campus community college system. The college was seen as a bold initiative to serve adult and underemployed populations of students working part-time or stuck in positions that don’t pay a living wage.

“I want to see the most bang for our buck, and we certainly weren’t getting that from Calbright,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, who is chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. “And given the economic crisis from the coronavirus, the state doesn’t have the money. It’s time to shut that program down completely … The money saved can be better used in other places.”

However, officials from the community college chancellor’s office and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said they stand by the college. Calbright has enrolled 523 people, with 61 of them completing the entry-level course and participating in one of the college’s three programs, as of May 1, according to Calbright’s data.

A Legislative Analyst’s report on the May budget revision estimated that eliminating Calbright would save about $137 million, including $20 million in operating costs for next year and taking back $117 million in unspent funds. The study called for Calbright’s abolishment and noted it, “has a very high cost per student, is currently unaccredited and largely duplicates programs at other colleges.”

H.D. Palmer, a spokesperson for Newsom’s Department of Finance, said while the legislature has reached an agreement, discussions will continue with the governor’s office on a range of budget issues.

“The May revision reflects continued funding for Calbright, which is well-positioned to provide students searching for additional opportunities to improve their economic mobility through self-paced programs that can enable students to quickly earn industry-recognized credentials,” Palmer said. “The importance of distance learning opportunities in the current Covid-19 environment makes an even more compelling case for continuing support.”

According to an Assembly report on the proposed budget, Calbright’s board of trustees would have to develop a closure plan by December.

The legislature also would:

  • Redirect $75 million from Calbright to support a “basic needs/learning loss/Covid-19 response block grant” to the other 114 community colleges to support mental health services, housing and food insecurity, re-engagement for students who left college this spring, technology and online course development.
  • Redirect approximately $10.6 million from Calbright to compensate part-time faculty at the other community colleges for office hours.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said eliminating Calbright from the state’s budget is “shortsighted.”

“I appreciate the pickle and the challenge the legislature finds itself in,” he said, to EdSource’s This Week in California Education podcast. “I don’t believe that it is wise to cannibalize one college to support the others. It’s important for us as a state to see the importance of having all of the colleges supported while understanding that they all have to be cut.”

Oakley said Calbright can help the state understand how it “can change the way we deliver education, particularly to working adults. Given that we have nearly 5 million or so unemployed Californians, I think it’s critically important.”

Taylor Huckaby, a spokesman for the college, said Calbright is part of Newsom’s initiative for expanding skill-based training, especially now as economic conditions worsen.

“To shutter a school with this specific mission — to reach people who are not currently being served — would be a mistake,” he said. “The actions we take now will either undermine our recovery or ensure it.”

Calbright’s critics, however, believe that reallocating money from the online college to the other 114 community colleges would better serve the state’s economy and help more adults and non-traditional students looking for these programs. Some of Calbright’s turmoil, however, has come from within the college. Heather Hiles, the college’s first president, suddenly resigned in January. She was replaced by Interim President Ajita Talwalker Menon, who helped develop the legislation that created the college.

“The community colleges can provide the types of courses Calbright says they are doing and we can do them cheaper,” California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas said. The union represents 30,000 community college employees.

Freitas said building career, technical and workforce programs has always been one of the community colleges’ missions, and they do it in a way that builds on current resources.

Oakley said he has faith that Newsom and the legislature will work out a budget deal that includes continued support for Calbright.

“They all clearly understand the need for Calbright, but ultimately I don’t envy their position,” he said. “They have to satisfy the needs of lots of Californians right now. We will make our case clear and ensure that the governor and the legislature have the information they need to see why we think it’s a priority.”

Oakley said he still believes Calbright — and the type of education it offers — remains part of the state’s future.

“My fear is once Calbright goes away, it will open up the door to for-profits from all across the country to come in and do what we were hoping Calbright would do for the system,” he said.

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  1. Miryan 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Why couldn’t the concept of Calbright be brought to community colleges instead? Why spend more money with yet another “structure” with more expenses, instead of diverting part of the Calbright funds towards a free online series of courses that could be taken at community colleges?

  2. Bo Loney 1 month ago1 month ago

    Pandemics change history. Online classes have been proven to be of benefit and accessible for all. We can stop fighting over the small peanut bag of acceptance spots and offer everyone a chance to follow their dreams. If anything good comes from this pandemic, all educational institutions offering online classes to meet the needs of all the people is it. Stop the educational bottleneck.

  3. Paul 1 month ago1 month ago

    Redirect the funds to ROP programs. Real on the job training.

  4. Garrett Olsen 1 month ago1 month ago

    How can Chancellor Oakley call Calbright a college? It is not accredited.

  5. Jarret 1 month ago1 month ago

    Case for Calbright The model of the other 114 colleges is the same of any traditional college: "come to us.” The Calbright model, similar to the ‘for profit’ colleges upends that and says "we will come to you.” But Calbright takes that a step further in a paradigm shift that does so with no cost to the student. Additionally, the other 114 colleges are structured, as an old proverb goes, to feed a person a fish. … Read More

    Case for Calbright

    The model of the other 114 colleges is the same of any traditional college: “come to us.” The Calbright model, similar to the ‘for profit’ colleges upends that and says “we will come to you.” But Calbright takes that a step further in a paradigm shift that does so with no cost to the student. Additionally, the other 114 colleges are structured, as an old proverb goes, to feed a person a fish. Calbright is structured to teach a person to fish for themselves so they can feed others.

    Moving an education system online is not hard. That is purely technical. But if you do not understand your target student and the world they operate in, you are simply changing the technical delivery of your product.  Calbright does have the pulse of adult students stuck in low-wage jobs for whom a traditional college (even a traditional online college) simply is not positioned to serve.  There is a reason that “for profit” colleges exist alongside “traditional/non-profits.” National University puts out one of the highest totals each year of K-12 teachers. They do this because they are a non-traditional approach and have been doing it for over 30 years.

    For-profit schools such as National University and Phoenix constantly get negative pushback from traditional colleges largely with criticism that they themselves are guilty of. Traditional colleges state that the for-profit schools do not do a very good job of ensuring graduates have jobs.  Upon examination of this claim, the same could be said for traditional colleges. In fact, in one specific program area, this is very much the opposite. In the area of teacher education, the non-traditional, for-profit, National University has a higher conversion rate of graduates to jobs and better jobs than traditional programs. Why is that? Because National and other non-traditional schools like Calbright go to where the student is at and does not force the student to come to them. They flex to fit the needs their students have and do not force the student to flex to the structure of the school.

    Finally, the statement from some of the most vocal critics of Calbright that a “brick and mortar” school is better suited to serve low-income adult students may have been true in the age of dial-up internet and dollar-a-minute cellular service but it is totally false in today’s world with multiple options available for high-quality electronic communications over distance and time. Additionally, the argument in favor of “brick and mortars” over online has been rendered inert given that a majority of post-secondary education institutions are either all online now or moving there due to COVID-19.

    Twenty years ago I had just enough undergrad units in English to qualify for a single-subject emergency credential to teach middle school English. National allowed me to work my job teaching while I was working on my clear credential and a Masters of Education. There was no traditional program at the time that would have made that possible.

    Calbright needs to be given a chance to show what it can do. I fear and suspect the real opposition to Calbright comes from people who have conflicts of interest tied to the other 114 schools and their worry about what happens to them if Calbright is successful.

  6. Bryan Reece 1 month ago1 month ago

    The California community colleges (CCCs) offer high-quality technical training through 14 economic regional consortiums (Strong Workforce Development Regions). What the regions do not have is an elegant way to coordinate interregional and multi-college partnerships. As a result, companies that are larger than our regions find it difficult to develop partnerships with us. For example, if a state-wide business wants to develop training programs or apprenticeships for their existing/future employees throughout the state, the business is … Read More

    The California community colleges (CCCs) offer high-quality technical training through 14 economic regional consortiums (Strong Workforce Development Regions). What the regions do not have is an elegant way to coordinate interregional and multi-college partnerships. As a result, companies that are larger than our regions find it difficult to develop partnerships with us.

    For example, if a state-wide business wants to develop training programs or apprenticeships for their existing/future employees throughout the state, the business is required to develop 14 different regional relationships, coordinate with 14 different regional directors, accommodate countless individual college/district processes, etc. This model has hindered the relationship between CCCs and large state businesses.

    Adding Calbright to the model is desperately needed. Through a collaborative model where Calbright partners with each of the 14 regions, CCCs could offer training solutions to large businesses much more effectively. In this approach, Calbright would act as one point of contact with large businesses and coordinate training in the 14 regions and/or through Calbright’s own programs. This will help local community colleges grow, train more CA residents for “new economy” jobs, and help the state’s largest employers prosper. Everyone wins if we build a collaborative model.

    It is predicted that by 2030, 1.9 million new job openings in California will require CTE skills trained at the certificate or AA degree level. In other words, 30% of all CA job openings in 2030 will need technical training that exceeds the high school diploma but does not require a bachelors degree. Our middle skills training infrastructure is primarily supported by community colleges and currently does not have enough capacity do deliver on this need. If we collaborate with Calbright in the mix, I believe we can build a middle skills training pipeline in the state that will meet this demand. (www.bryanreecephd.com)

  7. F. Simpson 1 month ago1 month ago

    It is unfortunate that Calbright College has been given so much funding and attention for doing so little. I have been appalled by the lack of talent of those hired to run the college, especially after identifying recent leadership hires where the person does not meet minimum qualifications as outlined by the state. I keep hoping to find some of my talented colleagues being hired there, but instead I see people who fit the social … Read More

    It is unfortunate that Calbright College has been given so much funding and attention for doing so little. I have been appalled by the lack of talent of those hired to run the college, especially after identifying recent leadership hires where the person does not meet minimum qualifications as outlined by the state. I keep hoping to find some of my talented colleagues being hired there, but instead I see people who fit the social media bill. This college is supposed to support those most in need; it won’t. Just like Mr. Oakley, Calbright is all fluff, little substance.