The Sacrament-based Los Rios Community College District identified at least 1,500 cases of suspected financial aid fraud.

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In an effort to stymie online theft of financial aid at California’s 116 community colleges, the campuses may soon receive about $100 million in total to beef up their cybersecurity.

The $100 million funding plan was brought Tuesday to lawmakers as an information item during a hearing of the Assembly’s budget subcommittee on education finance. The spending, initially proposed in January by Gov. Gavin Newsom, was endorsed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan office that gives fiscal and policy advice to the Legislature. The subcommittee’s staff also signaled support.

“Our system needs a strong investment in technology resources, especially cybersecurity. The severity of our needs continue to increase,” Lizette Navarette, executive vice chancellor of the community college system, said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Lawmakers did not vote on the proposal, but none expressed dissent to it. Lawmakers and Newsom must agree to the budget by this summer.

The system’s 116 colleges have been dealing with security breaches since last year and have reported tens of thousands of attempts by scammers to apply and enroll. An EdSource survey of colleges last year found that hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost to the scammers, although the actual figure could be much higher. Often, the attacks have targeted a piece of the $1.6 billion that the federal government allocated to California’s community colleges for emergency financial aid as part of Covid-19 relief packages.

Navarette said during Tuesday’s hearing that one of the state’s 73 community college districts experienced a breach just last month, though she did not specify which district.

Under Newsom’s proposal, $25 million would be ongoing funding that the colleges would receive annually, mainly to increase cybersecurity staffing at the colleges. The remaining $75 million would be one-time support for the colleges and would pay for upgrades, such as anti-fraud technology and new security software.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office sees “a lot of merit” in Newsom’s proposal, said Paul Steenhausen, a policy analyst focusing on community colleges for the LAO. “Maintaining information security and preventing fraud is really critical,” Steenhausen added during the hearing.

Staff for lawmakers on the committee agreed with the LAO’s assessment. “More spending and more positions related to cybersecurity does seem warranted, given recent attempts to defraud the system to gain access to federal and state financial aid,” they wrote in an agenda item for Tuesday’s meeting.

The LAO has suggested that the Legislature give the system $23 million as a starting point to hire cybersecurity staff across the colleges. The LAO estimates that would be enough to cover at least one full-time person dedicated to cybersecurity at each of the colleges, though in the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, the LAO added that districts with more than one college may eventually warrant more funding.

For technology and security upgrades at the colleges, the LAO is recommending that lawmakers give the system $69 million and direct the chancellor’s office to allocate the funding based on each of the college’s specific needs, not just on enrollment. Colleges that are less prepared to combat hackers, for example, would receive more funding than colleges of the same size that are more prepared.

“So trying to lift up all the colleges to a minimum level of cybersecurity, given that the case now is that there are pretty different levels of preparedness,” Steenhausen said.

Calbright

During Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers also reiterated their desire to shut down Calbright, the state’s online-only community college that focuses on job training. Under Assembly Bill 2820, the college would cease operating by 2024 and money for Calbright would be reallocated to fund basic needs centers and student housing at the state’s other 115 colleges.

Calbright opened in 2019 and was designed as an alternative to traditional colleges, aiming to serve adult learners looking to get job training rather than associate degrees.

Ajita Talwalker Menon, CEO of the college, testified Tuesday that Calbright should remain open, saying the college has doubled its enrollment since July and “has met every milestone” outlined in its founding legislation.

“It’s important to remember that we’re still actually quite early in our seven-year startup period,” she said.

Lawmakers appeared unimpressed, pointing to low completion rates. By the end of 2021, just 70 students completed a certificate out of 748 that were enrolled.

Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, chair of the subcommittee that met Tuesday, argued that instructional changes during the pandemic showed that Calbright isn’t needed. He pointed out that colleges across the state shifted their instruction entirely online at the onset of the pandemic and continue to offer many courses in that fashion.

“So if we have colleges who are thriving and their faculty are learning how to do Zoom education, why do we need this experiment? It seems that it was an experiment and it’s not working,” he said.

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  1. Former Employee 8 months ago8 months ago

    It is time to shut Calbright College "California Online Community College" down. As a former administrator at Calbright, you would think that the state would hold this college accountable, but time will tell. Both current/former employees and members of the public have raised the enrollment issues to The Board of Trustees and their response was that Calbright is "unique". Besides that, what is not being covered is the amount of mistreatment that this leadership has caused … Read More

    It is time to shut Calbright College “California Online Community College” down. As a former administrator at Calbright, you would think that the state would hold this college accountable, but time will tell. Both current/former employees and members of the public have raised the enrollment issues to The Board of Trustees and their response was that Calbright is “unique”.

    Besides that, what is not being covered is the amount of mistreatment that this leadership has caused current, and past employees. This is a college that is supposed to provide a better future for students, yet they seem to toss, dedicate educators to the side or leave no other option but for people to resign. The financial and emotional impact has left many dedicated public servants in ruins.

    In addition there is a current pending litigation case “Roslyn Haley vs. Board of Trustees for California Online Community College District”. Why isn’t the media talking about this?

    Lastly, below, is a message from October 2021:
    I am concerned that we may be misrepresenting our enrollments.

    I have brought this up countless times, and since August 2020, have documented when, where, and to whom I and others have notified about these concerns. Neither I nor anyone else who has shared this same concern with me have been able to get a definitive response from leadership. Instead, we are either removed from meetings completely or hurried into private Zoom meetings where nothing is recorded or documented and concerns remain unaddressed. As public servants, working at a public institution of higher education, I respectfully implore that we have this conversation in the open, here, as a matter of public record.

    This started when I was looking at our most recent Milestone Report, in which we report 65 Medical Coding students. Upon close inspection, 28 (43%) have not completed an SAA in more than 90 days, and 12 (18%) have not completed an SAA in over 200 days.

    That got me thinking about other programs. In IT Support, which is our largest program by far, we report 340 students. As of October 4th, 2021, I see 356 Actively Enrolled students — which makes sense since I would expect to see more students enrolling. What I did not expect to see was that 79 (22%) students have not completed an SAA in over 200 days. Additionally, nearly half of all IT Support students (175; 49%) have not completed an SAA in over 90 days.

    This is shocking to me, as any other college I have worked at would have dropped these students by now. My professional opinion is that not dropping inactive students makes the Milestone Report’s enrollment numbers seem extremely disingenuous. How can we report enrollments for students that are not actively doing anything in our courses for several months?

    I decided to look at the metric Last LMS Activity, which tracks any academic behavior that we track (including, but not limited to, substantive academic activities), along with a current headcount of “Actively Enrolled” students, and broke that down by program. What I found was equally alarming:

     In IT Support, 33.9% (121/356) haven’t had any activity in over 60 days
     In Cybersecurity, 25.7% (17/66) haven’t had any activity in over 60 days
     In Medical Coding, 36.3% (20/55) haven’t had any activity in over 60 days
     In CRM Admin, 30.9% (13/42) haven’t had any activity in over 60 days

    It feels disingenuous to the Board, to the auditors, to the accreditors, to the legislators, and to the general public to report all “Actively Enrolled” students when there is a significant portion of those students who are no longer participating at Calbright.

    I decided to check the Academic Catalog, where I expected both a) a definition of Actively Enrolled, and b) the specific, quantifiable conditions required to consider a student no longer Actively Enrolled, but I could not find either.

    What I did find was:

     “All students are expected to have regular and substantive interaction with faculty and/or peers.” (p.24)
     “Calbright is a “continuous enrollment” institution, which means a student will be automatically enrolled in a new term if they are maintaining “satisfactory progress” in their program pathway.” (p.24)
     “Calbright requires that students make measurable progress toward the completion of their degree programs every term. A student’s progress is measured by tracking the percentage of completed course objectives and demonstrated competencies.” (p.24)
     “A student may be administratively dropped for the lack of academic engagement.” (p.25)

    (emphasis mine)

    What I did not find–not in our Milestone Report, our Academic Catalog, nor any meeting in which a number of staff have brought this up since I first started documenting it in August 2020–were the specific definitions for any of the following:

     regular and substantive interaction
     satisfactory progress
     measurable progress
     satisfactory academic engagement