State Audit: Calbright – California’s New Online Community College Failing!

Calbright College

Dear Commons Community,

Hoping to provide an alternative to expensive for-profit career-training programs, in 2019, California invested more than $100 million into an online-only community college known as Calbright.

But at the end of its first year of operation (2020), only 12 students had graduated. Nearly 400 dropped out, according to a report released by the California State Auditor lat week.

Calbright still has a significant potential value to California, but several missteps by the college’s former leaders have hampered the school’s ability to help its students get good jobs, State Auditor Elaine Howle said in her report.

The audit comes just days after the California Assembly voted 71-0 to abolish the school by 2023. Even as officials have defended Calbright as a “flexible, accessible pathway into high-quality jobs that pay a living wage,” legislators say the school has simply duplicated existing programs in other community colleges.

“The college must now make significant progress in enrolling, graduating, and helping to secure jobs for its students,” Howle said. “If Calbright does not demonstrate meaningful implementation of our recommendations by the end of 2022, we recommend that the Legislature eliminate the college as an independent entity and explore other options for providing self-paced educational programs to California adults.”

Former Gov. Jerry Brown, a longtime proponent for online education, signed a law in 2018 to establish Calbright. The school was meant to help working Californians get access to better, higher-paying jobs by securing certificates in industries in demand.

About 2.5 million Californians between 25 and 34 worked but didn’t have a degree beyond high school, Brown said at his State of the State address in 2018. The school would be much cheaper than for-profit institutions those workers often turn to, Brown said.

By October 2020, a year after its launch, Calbright had enrolled more than 900 students. But the school fell far short of its goal of placing 300 to 400 graduates into paid apprenticeships or jobs in its first year, according to the report. Only 12 graduated — and Calbright doesn’t know whether they are employed, the report said.

Calbright has also failed to build relationships with employers to ensure its graduates can get good jobs, the report said. The school started offering career services such as one-on-one coaching in November, but the report said they are insufficient substitutes for strong relationships with employers.

The report also pointed out students at some of Calbright’s programs, such as cybersecurity, may not be able to access good jobs because those often require bachelor’s degrees or significant industry experience. “Calbright’s decisions regarding the programs it offers have not adequately reflected an awareness of the needs of its target population.”

Finally, the report said Calbright’s former executive team, while earning substantially higher salaries than other community college leaders, did not have a detailed strategy for how it planned to spend more than $175 million in state funding.

With the new leadership in place by 2020, Calbright has made “positive steps,” the report said. Calbright plans to create a detailed spending plan by November. The school also recently hired a chief financial and administrative officer, the report said.

Calbright has also developed two new programs by March, in training for health care workers and on customer relationship management software. Calbright has established a partnership with a technology company for the latter program, the report said.

The report also noted that among 95 students who responded to its survey, they largely expressed satisfaction with their experience.

In its response to the audit, Calbright leaders vowed to make “continued progress” to address the concerns laid out. The leaders noted it has laid out a strategic vision to enroll 5,000 students by 2023, with 1,200 completing the school’s programs.

“More than 90 percent of Calbright’s initial cohort of students were students over the age of 25 and more than 50 percent were students of color — exactly the working adults that Calbright was designed to serve,” Calbright President Ajita Talwalker Menon and Board President Pamela Haynes said in their response. “Calbright is planning to do outreach to additional populations who may also benefit from these flexible programs.”

But those changes and remarks so far have not been enough to assuage the concerns of state legislators, as well as a major teacher’s union.

“The State Auditor’s report clearly shows that it is time to shut down the failed experiment of Calbright College,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers which represents many community college faculty members in the state, in a statement.

Calbright appears to have been a good idea that was poorly implemented.


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