Calbright faces another attempt from lawmakers to close the college

Dive Brief: 

  • A new bill in California’s Legislature would close Calbright College, an online-only public institution that awards certificates rather than degrees, and divert the school’s funding by 2024 to provide student housing, grants and other aid to community colleges and their students.
  • The proposed legislation — introduced by Assembly Member Jose Medina, a Democrat — points to Calbright’s low completion rates as a reason for redirecting the funding. Just 80 students have finished a program at the fledgling online college, which launched in late 2019, according to a spokesperson. 
  • The bill’s likelihood of passing is unclear. Although the online college has previously faced heavy opposition from state lawmakers, it has been saved from closure in the past under a budget deal struck by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. 

Dive Insight: 

The bill marks the third time state lawmakers have attempted to close Calbright. The college was championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, who viewed it as a public alternative to compete with for-profit institutions enrolling California students. 

Calbright is free to students and offers competency-based education, which uses assessments rather than classroom time to measure course progression. It’s meant to educate working students and those 25 and older. 

However, Calbright got off to a rocky start, suffering from administrative churn during its early days. The college’s first CEO, Heather Hiles, abruptly resigned in 2020 amid criticism about a choice to award a lucrative recruiting contract to a politically connected friend.

The next year, a withering state audit recommended that the state close Calbright if the online college didn’t improve a slew of issues by the end of 2022. The audit found that the college had inadequate support services, lacked a process for helping students land well-paying jobs and made little progress setting up its operations. It blamed the former executive team for the slow start. 

The first time lawmakers attempted to close Calbright, Newsom struck a budget deal that spared the online college. However, the agreement reduced the institution’s startup funds by $40 million. A spokesperson for Newsom declined to comment on the new bill, saying the governor will evaluate the proposal if it reaches his desk. 

Medina also introduced a bill in 2021 that would have closed Calbright, but the proposal died in the state Senate after passing in the House. 

Connie Leyva, chair of the state Senate’s education committee, has voiced support for Calbright in the past. 

A spokesperson for Leyva declined to comment about her current stance toward Calbright or the new bill. 

Medina has had reservations about Calbright since its inception, he said. Among them, he questions whether online education is the best modality for the college’s target demographic of nontraditional students. 

“They would need more hands-on instruction and guidance counseling, and I didn’t see how that was going to be provided,” Medina said. 

Calbright, however, maintains that its self-paced courses can help this population. Currently, 911 students are enrolled, Calbright spokesperson Taylor Huckaby said in an email. Of those, 92% are 25 and older, and nearly half are unemployed or working multiple jobs. 

“Without Calbright’s unique and flexible program offerings, these students would not be participating in California’s system of public higher education, leaving the state less equitable, its recovery less effective, and with fewer educational opportunities for residents,” Huckaby said. 

This spring, Calbright officials expect enrollment to reach 1,000 students and to award its 100th certificate. 

Although Calbright’s enrollment numbers have grown since the audit, Medina said he remains worried the state isn’t getting enough return on its investment. 

Calbright’s budget summary for the 2021-2022 academic year says the college has $77.4 million available from its startup funds and $15 million in ongoing funding. 

Medina said he will be meeting with Calbright officials to learn more about the college’s progress. 

“I — and I think my colleagues in the Legislature — are going to be paying close attention to how they are doing, what progress they have made,” Medina said. “If I don’t see that, I will very much continue with my bill.”

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