Enrollment at Calbright College, in California, surpassed 2,000 students in March, almost double from where it stood a year ago — a significant milestone for an institution that state lawmakers as recently as last year sought to close.
Calbright, which awards certificates rather than degrees, attributes consistent enrollment increases to its emphasis on student-centered design, according to Mackenzie Smith, the college's communications director.
The college has seen strong gains since July 2021, when it had under 500 students, according to Calbright. Its student population reached 1,000 before slowing at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, from March to May 2022. But since July 2022, Calbright has added just over a hundred students a month.
The online-only institution has devised several strategies to make it easier for prospective students to enroll and access services. It redesigned its website and launched information sessions for prospective students, with roughly a third of attendees ultimately deciding to enroll, according to Smith.
Calbright, a public community college that is free to California residents, opened in 2019. It was created to boost economic mobility in the state and help working adults get credentials that will raise their earnings potential.
Almost all of Calbright's students, 92%, are 25 or older, with a median age in the late 30s, according to the college. And 1 in 3 students are caregivers, a demographic that faces increased obstacles to completing credentials.
Calbright awarded 110 certificates in 2022, compared to 43 in 2021, the college said. On average, students graduate in under a year, though it varies by program, Smith said.
Previous administrative hurdles
The enrollment and degree milestones are good news for Calbright, which has struggled with administrative issues since its launch.
Calbright's president and CEO resigned at the beginning of 2020, and the college avoided calls from state lawmakers to defund it later that year and in 2022. In 2021, a state audit recommended closing the institution if it didn't improve on metrics like student support services.
Calbright's most recent improvements, however, failed to excite the California Federation of Teachers, according to its president, Jeff Freitas. The union represents more than 120,000 education employees in the state, including 30,000 who work at community colleges.
"We are not impressed with the numbers based on the extraordinary amount of money and resources that have been wasted on Calbright," Freitas said. "We continue to believe that Calbright is a waste of critical funding that belongs in our traditional community colleges, which are already doing a superior job of educating our students both in person and online."
Calbright received $15 million in annual funding from the California state budget, according to the college's budget summary for the 2022-2023 academic year. The state also granted Calbright $71 million in one-time start-up funding when it launched.
Following the auditor's report, CFT called for reinvesting Calbright's state funding into traditional community colleges.
California Assembly Member Sharon Quirk-Silva, who co-sponsored a bill to close Calbright in 2022, could not be reached for comment Monday.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration applauded the enrollment milestone and remained firmly in favor of the college's mission.
“CalBright embodies California’s student-centered values — meeting working students where they are, expanding lifelong learning, and setting graduates up for success in a career," said Ben Chida, the governor's chief deputy cabinet secretary. "It’s exciting to see real lives being improved.”
Newsom has been a stalwart advocate of Calbright, as was his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, who helped found the college.