Despite attempts by Legislature to eliminate Calbright College, Newsom advisor indicates support

July 8, 2021

Calbright College, the state’s exclusively online community college, appears to have support from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office despite attempts by the Legislature to eliminate its funding.

Lande Ajose, Newsom’s senior policy adviser on higher education, said: “We remain supportive of Calbright, and we’ll continue to even as there has been some critique.”

There is research that shows adult students need to be able to access distance learning, and it isn’t something they want to go away, Ajose said. “So we’re very supportive of Calbright and think that it has a lot to offer for the state.”

Credit: The Opportunity Institute

Lande Ajose, the governor’s senior policy adviser for higher education.

Ajose made the comments Wednesday during a webinar event with the Campaign for College Opportunity, in which she discussed the new state budget and the governor’s higher education priorities.

Calbright is a free, self-paced alternative to traditional colleges intended to serve adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who lack college degrees or need additional skills to qualify for higher-paying jobs. The college uses a competency-based education model, which assesses students based on the skills they learn and not the amount of time spent in a class.

But for the second year, there is a legislative attempt to eliminate the college’s funding and shut it down. Assembly Bill 1432, from Assembly members Evan Low, D-San Jose, and Jose Medina, D-Riverside, unanimously passed in that chamber last month. The Senate Education Committee will consider the bill on July 14. A similar attempt was made last year to close the college, but Calbright survived thanks to Newsom. One change was losing some of its funding. The college initially received $100 million in state funds over seven years for startup costs and about $20 million annually for operating expenses. The Legislature cut Calbright’s one-time funding to $60 million and ongoing annual dollars to $15 million.

The legislative attempt is buoyed by a state audit released in May that blasted Calbright’s previous leaders for overpaying some of its executives, lacking a strategy for spending state funds, and failing to provide students with training and connections to employers.

But the audit also gave Calbright until the end of 2022 to improve and recommended the Legislature eliminate the college if it hasn’t shown changes. One significant change was bringing in new leadership, which began last year when Ajita Talwalker Menon, a former higher education adviser in the Obama administration, became president of the college. She was permanently hired in July 2020.

“I think Ajita has been doing amazing with Calbright over the last year since she’s been there,” Ajose said. “So we’re really supportive. I’m not sure that the work that she has been doing has actually been heard, because I think people are kind of stuck thinking about how Calbright started rather than looking at what Calbright is right now.”

In March, Calbright officials released a strategic plan to debut three new programs this year to increase enrollment to 5,000 students by the end of 2023. The college has been heavily criticized for its low enrollment and certificate completion numbers. According to the audit, a total of 904 people have enrolled in Calbright at one point or another. But at least 384 dropped out, and 87 were inactive for at least 90 days since the college opened to students in October 2019.

Ajose said Calbright is the solution for working adults who want to make an adjustment or change in their lives, and it is an alternative to “lost reputable online offerings,” such as some for-profit institutions.

Earlier this week the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Services awarded $10 million to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, SRI Education, and Achieving the Dream, to conduct a national research study examining how technology can improve students’ skills for managing learning on their own. The research program includes nine colleges across the country, including Calbright. SRI Education is a research organization and Achieving the Dream is a nonprofit that uses a network of more than 300 colleges nationally to conduct educational research.

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