- California lawmakers are pushing to defund the state's first online-only community college and reallocate the more than $100 million in savings to other institutions in its two-year system, according to a state Assembly report.
- However, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the community college system's chancellor say they support continued funding for Calbright, which trains adults for work in high-demand fields, EdSource reported.
- Calbright has faced mounting criticism since it opened last year. Critics say it duplicates programs taught at other California community colleges and note that it has struggled to move students through its programs and fill key positions.
The coronavirus crisis has increased calls to eliminate Calbright, which former California Gov. Jerry Brown championed as a way to expand online education options for the state's adult workers.
Yet union leaders and key lawmakers have fought against the college from the start. That opposition boiled over last week, when the California Assembly's budget proposal called for the Calbright's board of trustees to establish a closure plan for the online school by the end of the year.
The proposal aims to reroute $75 million from the institution to create grants to help the state's other community colleges pay for mental health services, housing and food insecurity as a result of the pandemic, as well as to connect with students who dropped out this spring. It would also use $10.6 million from Calbright funds to support part-time faculty members' office hours and compensation programs at these institutions.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of California's community college system, told EdSource that defunding Calbright would be "shortsighted." He sees the fledgling online college as a way to bat back competition from for-profit colleges that target working adults.
Public higher education leaders in other states are likely keeping tabs on Calbright as they look for ways to better compete with large online private and for-profit universities, which enroll hundreds of thousands of students nationwide.
Calbright's early struggles may dissuade them from building their own online institutions from the ground up, said Trace Urdan, managing director at Tyton Partners, an education consulting and investment banking firm.
Instead, they may be more likely to go the route of Purdue University, which acquired the for-profit Kaplan University — along with its roughly 30,000 students and 2,100 employees — in 2018 to form the basis of its online college, Purdue University Global.
"If you can get the deal past critics, then you have a fully functioning enterprise up and running, and it's much harder for (them) to take down," Urdan said. "The failure of Calbright argues more in favor of the buy-versus-build model."
Calbright's critics say the college duplicates programs already being taught at the state's other community colleges, especially now that the pandemic has forced them to pivot to virtual instruction.
"Community colleges themselves can do a good job of doing career technical education," said Jose Medina, a member of California's Assembly who chairs the higher education committee. "What was set up with Calbright can actually be done better by the local community colleges." He added that he'd be surprised if Calbright continued to be funded.
Calbright has had a slow start. Its first cohort consists of 526 students, only seven of which have graduated from one of its three programs in medical coding, information technology and cybersecurity, said Taylor Huckaby, a spokesperson for the college.
However, around 26 students are nearing graduation and 66 students are in their capstone courses, he said. Calbright officials view this first group of students as a "beta-cohort" that they will learn from in order to improve the curriculum and support services.
Calbright is also looking to hire seven full-time faculty members, which could help it grow. It has three full-time deans and 11 contract faculty members, nine of whom are part-time.
"The need for online education right now is obvious and immediate," Huckaby said. "At a time when everyone is tightening their belts, online education is not someplace where the state should be divesting from. And cannibalizing one part of the community college system to put one-time money in other parts is just not a viable way forward."