When California set aside $100 million to launch its first fully online community college, supporters led by then-Gov. Jerry Brown said the school would prepare adults stuck in dead-end careers for the modern workforce.
After two years of halting progress, state lawmakers — facing a budget disaster and mounting complaints from faculty unions — are pushing to scrap the college entirely.
Calbright College, the online-only community college, has 526 students enrolled in its entry-level courses. Its $20 million budget for the current year works out to about $38,000 per student, though the college says it’s working to rapidly expand.
The college’s first president, Heather Hiles, abruptly resigned after less than a year on the job. And the school has struggled to bring on full-time faculty members.
Meanwhile, Calbright is sitting on $117 million, largely left over from its startup fund, and would get $17 million more this year under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget — even as the state tries to close a $54.3 billion deficit.
Legislators have other ideas. A budget plan worked out last week by Assembly and Senate leaders would eliminate Calbright’s funding and use its leftover surplus to save other programs. Lawmakers and the Newsom administration are negotiating on a budget that the Legislature must pass by Monday or go without pay.
Faculty unions call Calbright a botched experiment that duplicates the work of traditional community colleges, which serve 2.1 million students and are at risk of steep budget cuts.
“We would have to say it was a failure,” said Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents faculty members. “We want our local community colleges to do it, and they can do it.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, he noted, “almost every class in every community college has gone online.”
But Calbright has powerful defenders. Newsom’s administration said the pandemic has underscored the need for distancing learning and “makes an even more compelling case” for Calbright. The governor wants to continue funding for the online school, minus a $3 million cut to its budget.
One advocate is Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. He said lawmakers should be accelerating online learning amid soaring unemployment.
“Asking the California Community Colleges to cannibalize some programs to save others is a choice that I reject,” Oakley said in a statement.
He also cast Calbright funding in racial-justice terms, saying that a majority of the community college system’s students are people of color.
Legislators say the money for Calbright would be better spent to support campuses serving large student bodies. Under their budget plan, the state would take the $134 million that Newsom proposes to earmark for Calbright and use it to avoid cuts to programs like food pantries for students, part-time faculty salaries and apprenticeship teaching.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office wrote in May that Calbright “has a very high cost per student, is currently unaccredited and largely duplicates programs at other colleges.”
Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Budget Committee, said it makes no sense to create a “whole new bureaucracy” for online learning. He said it “makes significantly more sense” to use California’s established 114 established community colleges to expand remote learning.
“The idea itself has merit,” Ting said of expanding online learning. “But, to me, the way it has been executed has been very inefficient and very costly.”
Ting said he also has concerns that Calbright has inflated its number of students. For example, the college reports that 526 students have enrolled. But only 66 have completed an entry-level course and advanced in their core subject area.
“You have a public college and you can’t even get accurate enrollment information,” Ting said. “That’s concerning.”
Taylor Huckaby, a spokesman for Calbright, said the college began enrolling students less than a year ago, and initially capped enrollment for a few months after it opened in October. He said Calbright aims to enroll an additional 1,000 students by the fall.
“That’s a somewhat bad-faith argument that continues to come up,” Huckaby said of enrollment numbers. “We’ve been around for a very short period.”
Critics of Calbright say that’s precisely the point — it takes a long time to build a new college from scratch and receive accreditation. Freitas, the California Federation of Teachers president, said existing community colleges could expand distance learning without having to hire an entire administrative team.
“At a fraction of that cost, our current community colleges could do that,” he said. “It’s competing against our local community college as opposed to investing.”
Calbright has also drawn scrutiny over its expenses. Its first CEO, Hiles, who previously worked as a spokeswoman on Newsom’s 2003 San Francisco mayoral campaign, received a base salary of $385,000 and a $10,000 annual car allowance.
Hiles resigned in January, after an 11-month tenure that brought controversy including a no-bid contract she pushed for a friend and politically connected executive recruiter.
The college’s interim president, Ajita Talwalker Menon, is paid substantially less, about $258,000 per year. Calbright also has three deans and an executive team. There are currently two full-time faculty members on contract and nine part-time instructors.
Huckaby said the college plans to hire seven faculty members this summer, pending approval from the college’s board. He said Calbright aims to enroll 5,600 students by 2023.
Calbright has also spent heavily to protect its image at the Capitol in Sacramento. According to disclosure forms, the college has spent more than $141,000 on contract lobbyists since early 2019. It also recently hired a public-relations firm, at $240,000 per year.
Legislators have long been skeptical of the online-only school and initially resisted Brown’s proposal to fund the college in 2018. The former governor won that fight, despite opposition from faculty unions.
The college also has a limited curriculum. Students must enter one of three program pathways: medical coding, IT and cybersecurity.
Programs are designed to teach students competency in a skill set, not necessarily to help them obtain a specific degree, though Calbright says it can be a bridge to connect students to traditional colleges.
The college was supposed to follow an aggressive timeline and quickly develop a new approach to online learning. Legislators say they’re done with the experiment.
“It seems like this could be done smarter,” Ting said. “There’s no question.”
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