Third attempt to close Calbright College

California state lawmakers are threatening to close Calbright College again.

Assemblyman Jose Medina recently introduced a bill that would permanently close the state’s first fully online community college by January 2024. This is the third attempt by state lawmakers to dismantle the college.

Medina’s proposal calls for Calbright funding to be reallocated to basic needs centers, student housing and additional financial aid to the state’s 115 other community colleges, with $5 million specifically earmarked for student supports. with children. The bill will be presented to the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, chaired by Medina, at a hearing in April, according to SourceEdwho had previously reported on the Medina proposal.

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

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

Medina’s 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 say 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 news release. Calbright has also awarded 94 certificates, and administrators expect completion rates to rise as enrollment continues to grow. More than 92% of students are over the age of 25, 32% are responsible for caring for family members, and 80% identify as students of color. Forty percent of enrolled students are unemployed and 31% have recently lost their jobs or had their hours reduced.

“Current and historical 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 less efficient recovery and with fewer educational opportunities for residents,” a Calbright spokesperson said in a statement.

College administrators also attribute the institution’s rocky start to the pandemic, among other obstacles.

“Calbright opened enrollment just months before the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising inequality and economic hardship have amplified the urgent need for competency-based credentialing programs like ours,” said the gatekeeper. speech. “In an era of extraordinary budget surpluses, the California legislature must invest more in innovative solutions that advance our education system, not less.”

Medina acknowledged efforts to improve Calbright but said they had not allayed his concerns.

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

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 margins,” but said the college needs to fundamentally change its offerings.

“There’s nothing I’ve seen that materially addresses Calbright’s shortcomings, which is that it’s not a compelling program – it’s poorly designed,” he said. “Once the students have taken the courses, they are difficult to follow. It’s confusing; they require you to go through many steps before you get to the material you actually want to learn.

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

Calbright has been at the center of controversy since it opened. Community college faculty groups initially opposed the college over concerns that it would redirect state resources from existing online programs at their institutions. Then the college’s first president and CEO, Heather Hiles, left less than a year after taking office. A state audit report, released last May, accused former administrators of inflating salaries, continuing unethical hiring practices and implementing too few student supports. He also sounded the alarm about high dropout rates and urged current leaders to do more strategic planning.

Former and current employees have also expressed concern that a large number of students are not actively participating in the programs in which they are enrolled. Students are removed from programs if they do not complete “substantial academic activity”, such as completing an online course module or project, within 180 days, a practice Calbright administrators say is standard. Over the past 90 days, 80% of students have actively engaged in programs, according to Calbright’s spokesperson.

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

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

A similar proposal to shut down Calbright passed unanimously in the state Assembly in 2021, but the Senate Education Committee canceled a scheduled hearing on the bill and put the case from side. The state legislature also agreed to a state budget that would have eliminated the college in 2020, but California Governor Gavin Newsom included Calbright in the final budget lawmakers agreed to. Calbright, however, saw its annual funding reduced to $15 million from $20 million.

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

“They are the same players with the same argument,” he said. “It’s a policy issue, not a student achievement issue.”

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

“The purpose of this bill is to help underserved populations in community colleges…but in a more effective way,” the spokesperson said. “This is Assemblyman Medina’s attempt to eliminate some of the concerns of the past, in part that if we just eliminate this program, we will not be serving parents of students, non-traditional students, adult learners. This bill is a way to allay 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 innovation-focused think tank, said he hopes state lawmakers will set clear new benchmarks for Calbright and halt funding if the college cannot meet them.

Horn thinks the state spent too much money on Calbright initially 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 need to hold true for us to really hit those benchmarks. And before we spend a lot of money on something that could be a pipe dream, let’s just spend a little bit here and there testing the assumptions to determine if we’re on the right track or not, and then pivot or stop it accordingly on the database that we collect… They didn’t do it in this case.

He also finds the “standoff” over the college’s future to be unproductive and confusing to students.

“It’s probably the worst of all worlds, this limbo with the Legislative Assembly,” he said. “Because it’s also a real obstacle for students. It’s like, is the institution I’m thinking of enrolling in even going to be here? »

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