Commentary: Calbright CEO Says Online College is Indispensable

"We are an experiment on the vanguard of something truly exciting … and truly essential, if we are to have an economic recovery that supports everyone. The time of the public option for education is coming, and we’re proud to be part of what that looks like."

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This commentary, by Calbright College President and Chief Executive Officer Ajita Talwalker Menon, was first published on LinkedIn. Calbright has been in the news this week, as legislators discuss whether the state’s online-only university should continue to receive funding or whether its cost is no longer justifiable, given that much of traditional education is also now being pursued online amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic is making obvious what should have been clear for a long time: In order for any of us to be healthy, all of us have to be healthy. Covid-19 is contagious enough that truly public health efforts need to be made. Without them, it will continue to spread. If any populations are vulnerable to a pandemic, we are all at risk of catching it.

Our healthcare system needs to take care of everybody.

The truth about our economy is much the same as the truth about our healthcare: the more marginalized people there are, the more people are at risk of being left behind, the more fragile the whole system is. Everyone needs to be able to get access to economic opportunity and mobility.

In the 21st century, that means education.

In a time of spiking unemployment only comparable to the Great Depression, the most protected, least vulnerable, jobs are the ones that require an education, special credentials, or special skills.

Workers who can fill them are also the ones most in demand.

Meanwhile more and more jobs that don’t require education and special skills are being lost to automation.

There is a clear path to upward mobility, and a clear path to being left behind, and one of the great cruelties of the current economic system is that the only way to get the education that allows you to fully participate in the economy is to spend a lot of money.

Much as in health care, there needs to be a low to no-cost “public option” in education so that anyone with the drive, ambition, or need, to participate in the economy has the skills to do so.

The premise is sound; it’s worked before. The push for universal literacy in the 19th and 20th centuries made a whole new level of economic participation possible, and a literate population became a driving force of the American economy. (As Deborah Brandt noted in her book “Literacy in American Lives,” since the early 20th century “Literacy ability, corporate profitability, and national productivity have all become entangled.”) The G.I. Bill after World War II was the equivalent of an education “public option” for a significant portion of the country -- and it led to an unprecedented economic boom and a lasting period of shared growth.

The evidence seems clear: The more barriers there are to education, the more the entire economy is drained and at risk. Public investments in people are public investments in prosperity.

Neither of these examples involved eliminating private colleges or the creation of a new, large bureaucracy. They were relatively simple efforts to get people the education they needed, when they needed them … and economic explosions followed.

We could do that in the 21st century, too.

Calbright College, established by the California State Legislature in 2019 and beta testing its first classes for the past six months, is one example of a contemporary “public option” for education, one specifically targeted at working adults, many of whom have little prior college experience.

It’s not that Calbright is online -- just being “online” isn’t the same as a true public option for education. It’s that Calbright removes as many barriers as possible for working adults who want an education that can connect them to economic prosperity, while it simultaneously remains a public trust answerable to the state, not shareholders.

Money, and student debt, are surely the biggest obstacle to an education, so Calbright -- like any good public option would be -- is free. As an institution that has to serve the entire state, it is online; and for prospective students who have trouble getting online, whether out of poverty or because they live in areas poorly served by internet providers, it can provide laptops and routers to enrolled students.

Time is the second biggest obstacle to working adults getting an education. That’s why Calbright’s courses are self-paced and taken at the convenience of the student. Not every aspect of a public option for education would need to follow this model, but surely we can see why at least some aspects of a public education option would: It’s not really a public option if the time commitment required realistically puts it out of reach of the students who need it most.

Time can be a barrier in another way, too: Often, working adults need to see results faster than a conventional degree program allows. Even an associate’s degree can take well beyond the minimum of two years, especially when it’s taken around work, family, and other obligations. Calbright’s programs are designed to be completed in a year or less, and lead not to degrees but to certifications that California companies are seeking for upwardly mobile jobs.

This doesn’t reflect the value of a degree -- degrees are obviously valuable -- but is an effort to meet the needs of non-traditional students whose economic participation we’re trying to support.

As with healthcare, one size does not fit all. Calbright is designed to meet some very specific needs of a very particular, underserved population. It can’t be the only part of a truly effective public education option. Many people do need degrees; they do need in-person classroom, instruction -- and a robust public option would need to offer them that, too.

But any meaningful public education option would include programs like Calbright’s. We are an experiment on the vanguard of something truly exciting … and truly essential, if we are to have an economic recovery that supports everyone.

The time of the public option for education is coming, and we’re proud to be part of what that looks like.

Ajita Talwalker Menon is the Interim President and CEO for Calbright College. Her job is to lead the college to help underserved Californians gain greater economic mobility and to provide skilled talent for hiring employers. Ms. Menon has dedicated her career to supporting government agencies, higher education institutions and systems, and non-profit organizations to drive better and more equitable outcomes in higher education and workforce training.