Calbright College, the state’s online community college, stands on the edge of a precipice. As it has many times since it was established two years ago, the state’s only exclusively online college is once again fending off pressures from the Legislature to shut it down.
On one side, college leaders say they plan to spend the next couple of years expanding enrollment and building new programs. On the other, some state lawmakers have made it clear that they are eager to close down the college, which they view as too expensive and inefficient.
Meanwhile, observers of the college, students and staff await the results of a state audit that will examine if Calbright meets its goals as set by the Legislature — like building employer partnerships, recruiting faculty and whether outreach and marketing have helped to recruit students. That audit report is expected this month.
It was ordered last year by the Legislature amid complaints that the college had little to show for the funding it had already received. The college initially received $100 million in state funds over seven years for startup costs and about $20 million annually for operating expenses. But last June, the Legislature cut Calbright’s one-time funding to $60 million and ongoing annual dollars to $15 million.
Calbright’s president, however, has repeatedly said that it’s too soon to completely judge the college.
“There’s a reason the Legislature set a seven-year timeframe for this work to happen,” Calbright College President Ajita Menon told EdSource. “Because it requires us to be thoughtful, and we need the time to build the college to scale … We’re very much building an enduring option that needs to be in the public sector to change the way this college supports working learners.”
Some lawmakers however are displeased with what they’ve seen since Calbright opened to students in October 2019. And with the coronavirus pandemic forcing most of the state’s 115 other community colleges to shift learning online, lawmakers question how Calbright is different.
College officials emphasize that Calbright is very different. Once the pandemic is over and colleges resume in-person learning, Calbright will stand out as the system’s only online-only college that delivers skills training to adults already in the workplace or trying to get a job.
Planning is underway for three new programs aimed at the very workers displaced by the pandemic.
“There’s great promise here, but it’s just not being materialized,” Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento Democrat and longtime opponent of the college, said during a February education budget hearing. “You would think during the pandemic when opportunities for this would be the greatest, there would be a big success. It’s not.”
A Different Idea
Former Gov. Jerry Brown championed the college to serve adult and underemployed people who wanted to move up in their careers or find better-paying jobs.
Calbright is free to students and uses competency-based education, which assesses students based on the skills they learn and not the amount of time spent in a class.
But controversy surrounded Calbright even before it enrolled its first student in 2019, both over the amount of funding it receives and by some faculty groups’ claims that its programs duplicate the offerings of traditional community colleges.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom saved Calbright from elimination by including it in his budget agreement with the Legislature. This year, a new bill, AB 1432, from Assemblymembers Evan Low and Jose Medina, would eliminate the college by the end of 2022-23.
“I’ll be honest; there is no support” for the college, McCarty said. He claimed “98% disapproval from the Legislature,” but no vote has been taken.
A sticking point for the lawmakers: Calbright, as of the end of March, had 497 students actively enrolled. Administrators say they purposely limited enrollment to 500 people because the college is new and in “pilot” mode. But in the 19 months since opening to students, only 41 certificates have been awarded.
Given the money already spent on developing the college, Medina, a Riverside Democrat, said he expected far more people would have completed the program by now.
“I’ve never seen so little done with so much,” he told EdSource.
“The community colleges on their own are doing a good job of meeting the needs of the workforce, and the students are doing it virtually. And Calbright has not shown me or many of my colleagues that they can do what they set out to do originally.”
Proving Their Worth
Calbright officials know more needs to be done. Menon, Calbright’s president, said she isn’t satisfied with the numbers the college is producing. To expand its reach, Calbright is debuting three new programs.
The first is a new customer service management certificate program that began in April. The second is The Upskilling for Equitable Health Impacts program, which will help current health care workers develop better interpersonal skills and provide diversity and inclusion training to better interact with patients from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The program targets working certified nursing assistants, medical assistants and licensed vocational nurses. Calbright is also building a third program to start this summer in advanced manufacturing that will partner with 10 defense manufacturers to provide hands-on training and learning.
Over the next three years, with these new programs, Calbright plans to grow from 500 students to 5,000 by the end of 2023, Menon said. (The college plans to create four more yet-to-be-identified programs by 2023.)
For many Calbright students, the college is already doing precisely what they need.
Hector Delgado Miranda, 30, from the Los Angeles area, was hired by a robotics company because hiring managers learned he was enrolled in Calbright’s information technology program. He also plans to pursue Calbright’s cybersecurity certificate.
Miranda, who immigrated from Mexico as a child, worked as an administrative assistant for a company that works with developmentally delayed adults. He tried attending a traditional community college but dropped out because the schedule didn’t mesh well with another job he held at the time – cleaning washing machines.
Even after enrolling in Calbright, Miranda said he had a difficult time going back to school.
“But there is a lot of support at Calbright,” he said. “If I didn’t do any (classwork) for a while, they gave me a call. They emailed me. Asked me how I was doing. They would refer me to health services or just someone to talk to. It’s such a positive experience.”
He expects to complete the information technology certificate in two months.
Michael Stewart, a computer service technology instructor at the college and president of Calbright’s Academic Senate, said his job is all about “meeting students where they are at” and “creating plans that work for them.” That can mean working with different skill levels of students at any time of the day, he said.
But Calbright, unlike its competitors in the for-profit sector, for example, isn’t just “chasing enrollment,” Menon said, referring to the drive by some institutions to aggressively recruit students as a way to increase revenue through financial aid and tuition.
The programs aren’t just online but built around the needs of the learner. They’re self-paced and give learners time and space to complete while managing any other responsibilities they may have, like family or work.
That flexibility has been critical for Monica Holt, 32, of Sacramento, who is a single mother of three children. Much of her time “in class” takes place around her children’s schedule. For example, when her 1-year-old goes down for a nap, Holt said it’s time for class.
“This totally works out for my working lifestyle, my family lifestyle, my kid lifestyle, and my financial lifestyle,” she said.
One way Calbright saw itself as being a solution during the pandemic was to target areas of the state hardest hit by the economic crisis. The college began working with workforce development boards in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, for example, to target employers and people most in need of skilled work.
Calbright collaborated with the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board to recruit students for the new customer relationship management administration program.
“Our employers have mentioned there is a shortage of individuals that are trained in CRM management in an administrative capacity,” said Shawna Glazener, the board’s business services coordinator. Calbright’s new program would train students to use software like Salesforce, which organizes data about clients or customers in different businesses for support, sales, marketing or outreach, she said.
The board prescreened about 17 people for the program and enrolled six for the college, Glazener said.
Blake Konczal, the executive director of the Fresno workforce investment board, said Calbright’s most significant advantage over the traditional community colleges is its flexibility with students and how nimbly it can shift to address employer needs — for example, creating the new customer service management program.
“Whatever the value of the (traditional community college) curriculum that is being offered is negated by the fact that it’s being offered in a way that those people cannot take it,” he said. “Having the best curriculum in the world locked up in the ivory tower of academia doesn’t do any good. We have to go out into the marketplace and make it possible for people to access.”
Menon and those who work with and in Calbright hope people understand that there are very few examples of institutions in recent history that built an online college from the ground up. And certainly, none in the public sector. The college is also submitting its accreditation application next month, which will put it ahead of schedule for reaching that goal. (The Legislature required accreditation by 2025.)
The closest analog of what Calbright is trying to do would be the nonprofit and national Western Governors University, Menon said. “When we look at their progress on enrollment, we’re setting up to grow at a similar and even potentially faster pace,” she said. (WGU reached 5,000 students enrolled seven years after launching.)
Menon said she should be held accountable for the college’s educational outcomes. Still, she hopes people respect that for Calbright’s learners, life can overtake their academic pursuits and slow them down.
There must be “space at the table” for a flexible, low-cost, public option around getting education and workforce training, she said.
And hopefully, people realize what happens when that flexible and inexpensive option is taken “off the table for communities that need something different,” Menon said: Without Calbright, these students may be left with the more costly for-profit education or no college at all.