Photo courtesy Calbright

California legislature moves to close online community college

By Ashley A. Smith

EdSource

California Assembly and Senate leaders moved Wednesday to eliminate Calbright College, the state’s online two-year institution.

The college, which opened in October, has faced an onslaught of criticism and courted controversy since it was first proposed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. The Legislature has reached an agreement on the state budget that included defunding and redirecting more than $100 million to support other needs in the 115-campus community college system.

The college was seen as a bold initiative to serve adult and underemployed populations of students working part time or stuck in positions that don’t pay a living wage.

“I want to see the most bang for our buck, and we certainly weren’t getting that from Calbright,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, who is chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. “And given the economic crisis from the coronavirus, the state doesn’t have the money. It’s time to shut that program down completely … The money saved can be better used in other places.”

However, officials from the community college chancellor’s office and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said they stand by the college. Calbright has enrolled 523 people, with 61 of them completing the entry-level course and participating in one of the college’s three programs, as of May 1, according to Calbright’s data.

A Legislative Analyst’s report on the May budget revision estimated that eliminating Calbright would save about $137 million, including $20 million in operating costs for next year and taking back $117 million in unspent funds. The study called for Calbright’s abolishment and noted it “has a very high cost per student, is currently unaccredited and largely duplicates programs at other colleges.”

H.D. Palmer, a spokesperson for Newsom’s Department of Finance, said that while the Legislature has reached an agreement, discussions will continue with the governor’s office on a range of budget issues.

“The May revision reflects continued funding for Calbright, which is well-positioned to provide students searching for additional opportunities to improve their economic mobility through self-paced programs that can enable students to quickly earn industry-recognized credentials,” Palmer said. “The importance of distance learning opportunities in the current Covid-19 environment makes an even more compelling case for continuing support.”

According to an Assembly report on the proposed budget, Calbright’s board of trustees would have to develop a closure plan by December. The Legislature also would:

  • Redirect $75 million from Calbright to support a “basic needs/learning loss/Covid-19 response block grant” to the other 114 community colleges to support mental health services, housing and food insecurity, re-engagement for students who left college this spring, technology and online course development.
  • Redirect approximately $10.6 million from Calbright to compensate part-time faculty at the other community colleges for office hours.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said eliminating Calbright from the state’s budget is “shortsighted.”

“I appreciate the pickle and the challenge the Legislature finds itself in,” he said to EdSource’s This Week in California Education podcast. “I don’t believe that it is wise to cannibalize one college to support the others. It’s important for us as a state to see the importance of having all of the colleges supported while understanding that they all have to be cut.”

Oakley said Calbright can help the state understand how it “can change the way we deliver education, particularly to working adults. Given that we have nearly 5 million or so unemployed Californians, I think it’s critically important.”

Taylor Huckaby, a spokesman for the college, said Calbright is part of Newsom’s initiative for expanding skill-based training, especially now as economic conditions worsen.

“To shutter a school with this specific mission – to reach people who are not currently being served – would be a mistake,” he said. “The actions we take now will either undermine our recovery or ensure it.”

Calbright’s critics, however, believe that reallocating money from the online college to the other 114 community colleges would better serve the state’s economy and help more adults and non-traditional students looking for these programs.

Some of Calbright’s turmoil, however, has come from within the college.

Heather Hiles, the college’s first president, suddenly resigned in January. She was replaced by interim president Ajita Talwalker Menon, who helped develop the legislation that created the college.

“The community colleges can provide the types of courses Calbright says they are doing, and we can do them cheaper,” California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas said.

The union represents 30,000 community college employees. Freitas said building career, technical and workforce programs has always been one of the community colleges’ missions, and they do it in a way that builds on current resources.

Oakley said he has faith that Newsom and the Legislature will work out a budget deal that includes continued support for Calbright.

“They all clearly understand the need for Calbright, but ultimately I don’t envy their position,” he said. “They have to satisfy the needs of lots of Californians right now. We will make our case clear and ensure that the governor and the Legislature have the information they need to see why we think it’s a priority.”

Oakley said he still believes Calbright – and the type of education it offers – remains part of the state’s future.

“My fear is once Calbright goes away, it will open up the door to for-profits from all across the country to come in and do what we were hoping Calbright would do for the system,” he said.

This story was originally published by EdSource.

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