Photo: Calbright College

The current state budget crisis may just do to Calbright College what past criticism from unions and legislators could not achieve so far: kill off the state’s new fully online community college.

Calbright College, established last year to deliver online education for under-employed adults, is now the focus of strengthened efforts to abolish it and redirect $137 million of its funding to other higher education needs, according to testimony Tuesday at a state Assembly subcommittee hearing. Key legislators and the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, which evaluates legislation and programs, portrayed the controversial school as duplicative of widespread online courses started in the pandemic and too expensive while other community colleges and state universities face troubling budget cuts.

“It’s been a total disaster, an unmitigated disaster. A total waste of money,” Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, the Sacramento Democrat, said of Calbright. The school’s funding should be stripped away and given instead to other state colleges, according to McCarty. He chairs the Assembly subcommittee on education finance, which discussed the significant spending cuts proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week in the face of the pandemic’s awful effect on state revenues.

Besides, with the nearly universal switch to online education in March, all the campuses are getting better at running online education and there is no need for “reinventing the wheel” at Calbright, McCarty added.

A Legislative Analyst’s report presented to the subcommittee 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 from previous years. In calling for Calbright’s abolishment, the study noted that the online college “has a very high cost per student, is currently unaccredited and largely duplicates programs at other colleges.”

Calbright, while free to students, opened in October 2019 and has enrolled 523 students for training in information technology, cybersecurity and medical coding. But the school faced opposition from its start from other community colleges and faculty groups. It also dealt with some internal turmoil. Heather Hiles, the college’s first president, suddenly resigned in January. Interim President Ajita Talwalker Menon, who helped develop the legislation that created the college, replaced her.

Taylor Huckaby, Calbright’s communications director, on Tuesday defended the college and insisted the school is needed more than ever since the recent spike in unemployment.

“The lessons from 2008 are clear — in the face of uncertainty and joblessness, people will turn to education for skills-building, and we need a free, public option available for adults who would otherwise turn to predatory for-profits, which leave students in debt and with few opportunities,” he said in an email to EdSource.

“To shutter a school with this specific mission — to reach people who are not currently being served — would be a mistake,” he added. Its students are different from the ones who are taking community college courses online before or during the crisis, he said. Calbright’s students are those who “fell through the cracks” and would not be enrolled elsewhere, he said.

At the hearing, the Newsom administration officials said that Calbright should be given a chance to prove its worth, especially since it recently gained new leadership.

Calbright was supposed to face a state audit after July 1 into whether it was serving the students it was created for, whether the college’s classes too closely resemble courses offered at other community colleges and whether it appropriately used state money. But Assemblyman Jose Medina, who championed that audit, said Tuesday that it would be delayed in order to save the more than $300,000 it was expected to cost.

Instead, Medina joined in the calls for ending Calbright. “When we see the dire budget situation, I don’t believe personally that we can afford such a system,” said Medina, who is chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. He said that Calbright “is not really serving the needs of the students of California.”

The Legislative Analyst’s report offered other austerity ideas that are sure to be examined in the weeks ahead. Those include saving about $81 million by getting rid of the portion of the College Promise program that allows community colleges to waive fees for students who actually don’t have financial need. Other savings ideas that go beyond Newsom’s plan include: redirecting unspent funds earmarked for deferred maintenance to education costs, giving about $160 million to the 23-campus California State University and $100 million to the 10-campus University of California.

During Tuesday’s hearing, one Newsom proposal faced strong opposition from both Democratic and Republican legislators: the suggested reduction in the maximum award in state Cal Grants for students attending private nonprofit institutions, from $9,084 to $8,056. Several committee members said they thought the loss in financial aid would unfairly hurt those students and was discriminatory. Newsom administration officials said the cut was automatic, based on prior legislation, since the private schools as a group had not reached targets for enrolling enough transfer students from community colleges.

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  1. Wage Slave 4 months ago4 months ago

    For those here suggesting local community colleges fulfill the same educations needs as Calbright, I beg to differ. Unlike traditional college, courses at Calbright are completely self-paced, which makes participation much more attainable for a full-time working parent like me. Also students attending CCs pay a lot in tuition, textbooks, etc. These high costs frequently result in ballooning student debt. Personally, I've always feared returning to college knowing how expensive it could be. Thanks to Calbright … Read More

    For those here suggesting local community colleges fulfill the same educations needs as Calbright, I beg to differ. Unlike traditional college, courses at Calbright are completely self-paced, which makes participation much more attainable for a full-time working parent like me. Also students attending CCs pay a lot in tuition, textbooks, etc. These high costs frequently result in ballooning student debt.

    Personally, I’ve always feared returning to college knowing how expensive it could be. Thanks to Calbright I am back in school after a 12 year hiatus. Thank you Calbright!

  2. Thomas Norman 4 months ago4 months ago

    Newsome should heed Medina's advice. The Cal State system serves the same underserved market for a fraction of the cost per student. However, too many of these campuses are falling apart. All UC and CSU faculty were introduced to online teaching this past Spring. We should focus tax dollars on helping the existing public universities expand their online offerings. At the CSU with part-time unionized lecturer pay of $5000 per class, we could split CalBright's … Read More

    Newsome should heed Medina’s advice. The Cal State system serves the same underserved market for a fraction of the cost per student. However, too many of these campuses are falling apart. All UC and CSU faculty were introduced to online teaching this past Spring. We should focus tax dollars on helping the existing public universities expand their online offerings.

    At the CSU with part-time unionized lecturer pay of $5000 per class, we could split CalBright’s 523 students in 20 classes of 25 students for a cost of $105,000 per class using existing Learning Management tools. Even at double this cost the savings to Californians would be tremendous.

  3. T Aldredge 4 months ago4 months ago

    Bravo!! Assembly members McCarty and Medina. Thanks for understanding that CalBright is duplicating the efforts of our already established community colleges.

  4. Paul Cordeiro 4 months ago4 months ago

    It's a hard pill to swallow, but it would be the right thing to do – now or before the COVID crisis, to pull the plug on this program. It is duplicative and is ridiculously expensive as a per student cost. Minimally, the pause button should be pressed until after the current economic crisis subsides and the state audit completed. I was blown away by the salary that was being paid to Ms. Hiles … Read More

    It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it would be the right thing to do – now or before the COVID crisis, to pull the plug on this program. It is duplicative and is ridiculously expensive as a per student cost.

    Minimally, the pause button should be pressed until after the current economic crisis subsides and the state audit completed. I was blown away by the salary that was being paid to Ms. Hiles and was also concerned that her resume really didn’t match the administrative knowledge and experience required for the job. Re-allocate the funds for the current system and improve, as needed, existing on-line delivery programs.

  5. el 4 months ago4 months ago

    Although I think we need a strong online initiative in our community college system, I still believe that we would be better served to develop these courses and courses of study and then administer them through the existing community colleges, so that students have a physical place to go for occasional help, counseling, and resources that is as local to them as possible. I'd like to see the courses made available across multiple schools, so … Read More

    Although I think we need a strong online initiative in our community college system, I still believe that we would be better served to develop these courses and courses of study and then administer them through the existing community colleges, so that students have a physical place to go for occasional help, counseling, and resources that is as local to them as possible. I’d like to see the courses made available across multiple schools, so that if you’re the only person in say Lassen County who wants to study that, you still have access.

    I like the basic idea, but so far I’m disappointed in the narrowness of the Calbright mission and I think the local schools are better able to meet it, perhaps with some structure that enables regional or statewide sharing of curriculum and instructors.

  6. DDH 4 months ago4 months ago

    Community colleges throughout California have opposed Calbright since its inception. The “college” was conceived apparently without proper research and stakeholder input, duplicating services that the community college system already offers. The cost associated with it, especially in light of Covid 19, is appalling. It needs to be dissolved and money redirected to the other community college programs that have a proven record of (and will continue) training and educating their communities.

  7. Wendy 4 months ago4 months ago

    The largest cut In the proposal is a 54% reduction in the Strong Workforce Program. How does this make sense, as this is the workforce development arm of the community colleges? Yesterday the chancellors office announced that this program is on track, meeting its goals of increasing CTE training 20%. SWP is aimed at getting students to work in record time and giving them skills to support themselves and their families at or above … Read More

    The largest cut In the proposal is a 54% reduction in the Strong Workforce Program. How does this make sense, as this is the workforce development arm of the community colleges? Yesterday the chancellors office announced that this program is on track, meeting its goals of increasing CTE training 20%. SWP is aimed at getting students to work in record time and giving them skills to support themselves and their families at or above living wages.

    CTE programs are known for short term training that lead directly to open jobs, the larger universities did not get cut significantly and they want to redirect more money to those systems? CTE programs are a few months to two years, then they are working, in this kind of climate how are students going to support themselves 4-6 years to finish their degree which might not even be employment focused?

  8. A Poor Adjunct 4 months ago4 months ago

    These public floggings of California's attempt to actually help California's workforce are disappointing but not surprising. I've been in the CC system for 20+ years and there has never been a greater existential threat to colleges than someone coming along and trying to do something better for students. Administrators and instructional leaders alike are so set in their ways and stubbornly naive that they completely missed the train a decade ago when the for profits … Read More

    These public floggings of California’s attempt to actually help California’s workforce are disappointing but not surprising. I’ve been in the CC system for 20+ years and there has never been a greater existential threat to colleges than someone coming along and trying to do something better for students. Administrators and instructional leaders alike are so set in their ways and stubbornly naive that they completely missed the train a decade ago when the for profits came in and filled the access gaps.

    Now, as we face even more of a crisis with credential inflation, rising tuition costs, and further access restrictions (do you know how many of my students work two jobs while trying to keep a full load??), people who are quick to spend as much of their budget by the end of the fiscal year on whatever they can to fluff their budget for next year are complaining that there is now a new kid on the block, one that promises to fill the gaps that, for the most part, colleges are unable or unwilling (or both) to fix.

    We should be applauding these efforts, not vilifying them. That there is such a vociferous antagonizing force against this enterprise speaks volumes to how scared traditional college leaders with a traditional college mindset have, once again, failed to keep up with the times and consider the actual lives of the potential students that they could be serving. These kids today are 500% smarter than we ever were because they have grown up with the internet. Most people leading and teaching at community colleges had already made tenure before Facebook became a thing. Think about that, then think about how out of touch these people are when they vilify the very idea of trying to create new ways to reach Californians.

    Sincerely,
    – A very tired, overworked, underpaid, and frustrated instructor