Calbright College, California’s online community college, may have survived elimination in the state’s budget, but the pressure is on to prove its value to the state.
The college faces a state audit and has yet to announce any employer partnerships it promised a year ago. Questions also remain whether Calbright’s students, the first of whom are 10 months into the program, will complete and find the employment the college promised. These are the issues awaiting newly-appointed Calbright President Ajita Talwalker Menon.
Menon, who was unanimously selected by the college’s trustee board Monday, said that despite the criticism, Calbright remains “an innovation engine” for the state’s other 115 community colleges. Calbright opened in October as the state’s 115th community college to deliver training to approximately 8 million of the state’s “stranded workers,” between 26 and 34, who are seeking credentials and training to advance. (The system Monday added its 116th college.)
Calbright remains well-positioned to lead the state in rebuilding California’s economy and helping adults transition into better-paying jobs, Menon said.
Menon, who replaced Calbright’s first president Heather Hiles in February, said the college could prove itself to lawmakers. “It is a mistake, as some have tried to characterize the college, as a silver bullet, single online solution,” Menon said in an interview with EdSource. “They need to understand the role it can play in innovation across the system and research and development for the community.”
In comments to the board Monday, Menon acknowledged that developing the college hasn’t gone perfectly, but Calbright’s staff is working hard to make critical changes to its operations and instructional efforts.
The college is redesigning the online student portal, for example, and administrators are rethinking parts of the entry-level course that will help students move into the program paths quicker, Menon said. But that will require more hiring.
Calbright also hired eight new full-time instructors and counselors on Monday. Menon said the new staff will help increase interaction between students and the college.
Menon said the college up until this point was simply a pilot to study the adult learners and what works to help them complete the certificate programs. Now, Calbright administrators are winding down from the pilot, analyzing the results and “launching the next phase of improvements in July,” she said. Students and faculty will soon see improvements to the college’s website and programs.
Helping adults who need more skills to earn higher pay is a role that former Gov. Jerry Brown envisioned when he pushed for Calbright’s creation in 2017. Nonprofit and for-profit colleges like Western Governors University and the University of Phoenix have thrived by offering Californians a non-traditional online education. Brown and California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley pushed for a public and lower cost option for adult learners.
Since opening, the tuition-free college has enrolled 545 people, with at least 80 of them completing the entry-level course, according to Calbright’s data. The college’s education model requires students to show they’ve mastered a particular set of skills or competencies, rather than complete a certain number of hours or achieve a grade to complete the courses.
But only having about 80 students complete the entry-level class has opened Calbright to criticisms including some from lawmakers who tried to cut off its funding during recent state budget talks.
Calbright marshaled its own supporters who insisted that the college be given more time to show its worth allowing the college to emerge in the 2020-21 state budget with a renewed life, but operating with about $45 million less in state funding from the legislature.
Menon said she wants the next phase for the college to address why students aren’t progressing more quickly through the entry-level class and their need for staff guidance.
One way they want to fix the problem is by increasing interaction between students, teachers and staff. So, at each time students come across a barrier and stop, such as completing the application or failing to move forward in an online lesson, an instructor or a student support coach will contact them, Menon said.
Phil Hill, an online education consultant, who has helped the state’s community college system with its Online Education Initiative, enrolled in Calbright last year as a student on his own to see how it measures up to similar online college programs.
Hill said he wasn’t paid by the system or the college to test Calbright, and he doesn’t describe himself as a critic or advocate of the online college. As an online education expert and California taxpayer, he was curious. But what he found was a poorly-designed and confusing class that could hinder students’ and Calbright’s success.
“The course is overly extensive without much real value,” said Hill, who enrolled in Calbright’s cybersecurity program. The entry course covers resume building and assesses students’ math and writing skills. However, many activities or lessons don’t happen on the Calbright platform. Students are redirected to other websites, such as LinkedIn Learning, to complete courses.
The course also doesn’t follow the main idea of proving what a student knows — testing or demonstrating skills and learning new ones. Hill said the Calbright entry course won’t allow students to immediately take an assessment, so they can demonstrate their skills. They must first click through the lessons, which can be frustrating for students who already know the skill.
“The end result is a mess that serves as an obstacle course preventing learners from getting to the academic program that they need,” he said, adding that he never made it to the next course and may ultimately drop it.
Another criticism the college has faced — a lack of employer partnerships. Calbright initially promised to connect students directly to employers looking for employees with skills that didn’t require two or more years of college. But that hasn’t happened.
Calbright had sought a partnership with the Service Employees International Union, as early as 2018, to help working adults in California’s healthcare industry earn their medical coding certificate. Instead, the union teamed with the already established Western Governors University and said it would pursue other training partnerships with Calbright.
Menon said the college’s previous leaders had underestimated how much time it would take to form those partnerships. Established online colleges took years to develop their curriculums. “We are working to build on others’ success, so we’re not constantly reinventing the wheel,” she said.
Gaining insights from its competitors, like WGU, could be crucial to Calbright’s longevity. WGU enrolls nearly 121,000 students across the country, including 10,900 California residents.
“Calbright has the right idea because they can look at WGU and others,” said Scott Pulsipher, WGU’s president. “But they have to prove quickly, is it delivering the value for students and adults, and are they competing and getting the jobs they need?”
Pulsipher said it took four years before the nonprofit enrolled 1,000 students.
“Those first five years you can have a lot of contrarians and naysayers come out and say it’s a debacle,” Pulsipher said. And the first run of a new school will have problems, but the goal must be correcting and learning from those issues, he said.
But unlike a nonprofit, Calbright is public and will still have to produce results quicker than WGU. Unfortunately, in a pandemic and economic recession, jobs are scarce and forming partnerships isn’t easy.
Menon said the college is rethinking how it can create simulated or remote work opportunities for students to help demonstrate to employers that when the economy re-opens, Calbright’s students are ready to work, she said. Calbright recently partnered with Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit connecting students to employers hiring for specific skills.
Building partnerships with other community colleges has been more fruitful. Calbright is partnering with Bakersfield and Compton community colleges so that its students can, one day, earn their degrees.
But Calbright is not alone in California trying to create this connection between adult learners, competency education and certificates.
San Diego Continuing Education, part of the city’s community college district, recently launched noncredit career training program that uses the same learning model as Calbright and WGU. The program is called The ICOM Academy, or Interactive Competency-based Online Microcredentialing.
“We’ve been working over the past year to build the best digital distance learning platform for adults in the United States,” said Carlos Cortez, president of the continuing education college.
The Academy is launching three certificate programs in small business entrepreneurship, mobile application development and information technology. By this fall, it will offer 11 certificates. The programs are free and take five to 10 months to complete. So far, about 280 students have enrolled in the three pilot programs.
But the Academy raises questions about whether it competes with or complements Calbright.
Menon said programs like ICOM aren’t competitors and should be strengthened statewide, she said.
That’s the same view WGU takes to a start-up college like Calbright. Pulsipher said one reason he doesn’t view Calbright as competition is the millions of Americans who need higher education. Calbright expands the number of options available to California students and workers, he said, referring to the 36 million Americans who left college without a degree.
Pulsipher said Calbright can succeed moving forward. “It’s about the design, the value to students, and being able to execute and grow,” he said.
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