Third attempt to close Calbright College

California state legislators are threatening to shut down Calbright College—again.

Assemblymember Jose Medina recently introduced a bill that would permanently shutter the state’s first all-online community college by January 2024. This marks the third attempt by state lawmakers to dismantle the college.

Medina’s proposal calls for Calbright’s funding to be reallocated to basic needs centers, student housing and more financial aid to the other 115 community colleges in the state, with $5 million specifically going to supports for students with children. The bill will be brought before the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, which Medina chairs, at a hearing in April, according to Ed Sourcewhich previously reported on Medina’s proposal.

Calbright continues to offer “limited returns” on the state’s more than $140 million investment to launch the college, plus $15 million in ongoing funding, said a spokesperson from Medina’s office. That funding would be better spent on “the other 115 community colleges that desperately need resources to maintain themselves and reach a larger student population.”

Calbright’s critics say that low enrollment and graduation rates indicate the college has failed in its mission to serve adult learners. The college was launched during the administration of former governor Jerry Brown and was designed to serve working adults with free, self-paced courses and a competency-based education model, which allows students who have already mastered relevant skills to move more quickly through their programs .

The Medina proposal notes that despite receiving tens of millions of dollars from the state, Calbright only graduated 70 of the 1,000 students enrolled between its founding in 2018 and 2021.

Calbright leaders argue that the college has made significant progress since then. The college now has more than 1,010 students enrolled—up from 518 students in October 2021—according to a March press release. Calbright also has awarded 94 certificates, and administrators expect completion rates to climb as enrollment continues to grow. More than 92 percent of students are over 25 years old, 32 percent are responsible for taking care of family members and 80 percent identify as students of color. Forty percent of the enrolled students are unemployed, and 31 percent recently lost jobs or had their work hours cut back.

“Current and historic trends in California’s higher education infrastructure show that without Calbright’s unique and flexible offerings, these students would be excluded from traditional training and education programs, leaving the state less equitable, its recovery less effective, and with fewer educational opportunities for residents, ” a Calbright spokesperson said in a statement.

The college’s administrators also blame the institution’s rocky start on the pandemic, among other hurdles.

“Calbright opened for enrollment only months before the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising inequality and economic hardship has amplified the urgent need for skills-based credentialing programs like ours,” the spokesperson said. “In a time of extraordinary budget surpluses, California’s legislature needs to invest more in innovative solutions that advance our education system, not less.”

Medina acknowledged the efforts to improve Calbright but said they haven’t eased his worries.

“Although I have met with Calbright and am aware of their recent work, I still have concerns on the cost needed to maintain the college and the lack of data on job placement,” he said in a statement. The bill “is therefore a solution to effectively help underserved, non-traditional students by investing in student financial aid, housing, basic needs, and students with dependents programs.”

Phil Hill, an education technology consultant and blogger who has written about Calbright’s retention issues, also said Calbright hasn’t made enough progress. He credits Calbright for increasing enrollment and “improving at the margins” but said the college needs to fundamentally change its offerings.

“There’s nothing I’ve seen that materially addresses the shortcomings of Calbright, which is that it’s not a compelling program—it’s poorly designed,” he said. “Once students get into the courses, they’re difficult to get through. It’s confusing; they force you to jump through a lot of hoops before you get to the material you want to actually learn.”

And because the college is free, “it’s very easy to drop out when you get frustrated,” he said.

Calbright has been at the center of controversies since it opened. Community college faculty groups initially opposed the college because of concerns that it would redirect state resources from existing online programs at their institutions. Then the college’s first president and CEO, Heather Hiles, departed less than a year into her role. A state audit report, released last May, accused former administrators of having inflated salaries, pursuing unethical hiring practices and putting in place too few student supports. It also raised alarms about high dropout rates and urged current leaders to do more strategic planning.

Former and current employees have also previously raised concerns that high numbers of students aren’t actively participating in the programs in which they are enrolled. Students are dropped from programs if they don’t complete a “substantive academic activity,” such as finishing an online course module or project, in 180 days, a practice Calbright administrators say is standard. In the past 90 days, 80 percent of students actively engaged in programs, according to the Calbright spokesperson.

College leaders say they’ve “worked tirelessly to improve transparency” since the audit.

“Following last year’s audit, we have implemented all the California State Auditor’s recommendations on the prescribed timeline, and are currently seeking accreditation—roughly two years ahead of schedule,” the Calbright spokesperson said.

A similar proposal to shut down Calbright passed unanimously in the State Assembly in 2021, but the Senate Education Committee canceled a planned hearing on the bill and shelved the matter. The state Legislature also agreed on a state budget that would have eliminated the college in 2020, but California governor Gavin Newsom included Calbright in the final budget agreed upon by legislators. Calbright did, however, see its annual funding reduced to $15 million from $20 million.

Hill said he doesn’t expect the latest attempt to close Calbright to succeed as long as the governor and former governor support the college.

“It’s the same players with the same argument,” he said. “It’s a matter of politics, not a matter of student outcomes.”

The spokesperson from Medina’s office said the bill is different from the other proposals to shut down the college because it redirects the funding that would have gone to Calbright to supports that can help the same kinds of students that Calbright was supposed to serve.

“The goal of this bill is to help those underserved populations at community colleges … but in a more effective way,” the spokesperson said. “This is Assemblymember Medina’s attempt to eliminate some of the concerns of the past, partly that if we just eliminate this program, we won’t be serving student parents, nontraditional students, adult learners. This bill is a way to assuage those concerns.”

Michael B. Horn, who writes about disruption and innovation in higher education and is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on innovation, said he hopes state lawmakers will set new, clear benchmarks for Calbright and discontinue funding if the college can’t meet them.

Horn believes the state spent too much money on Calbright at the outset without clear enough expectations for the institution.

“You want a big innovation to transform X?” he said. “That’s great, but let’s state all of our assumptions and unknowns up front that have to prove true for us to really hit those benchmarks. And before we spend a whole load of cash on something that might be a pipe dream, let’s just spend a little bit here and there testing the assumptions to figure out if we’re on the right track or not and then pivot or shut it down accordingly based on the data we get back … They didn’t do that in this case.”

He also finds the “tug-of-war” over the college’s future to be unproductive and disconcerting for students.

“That’s probably the worst of all worlds, this limbo with the Legislature,” he said. “Because it’s a real drag on students also. It’s like, is the institution I’m thinking about enrolling in even going to be here?”

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