New calls to eliminate the fully online Calbright College in budget crisis

May 19, 2020

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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