California’s online community college graduates just 12 students

Calbright faces 2022 closure deadline after troubled start

May 13, 2021
Vultures in California
Source: iStock

California’s bid to create a fully online community college is on the verge of collapse, after a state audit showed it graduated only 12 of its 900 students in its first year.

The institution, Calbright College, largely accepted a recommendation from the state auditor, Elaine Howle, that it should close down if it fails to show substantial improvement by the end of next year.

Even that scenario may be optimistic, as state lawmakers voted last year to sharply cut its funding and already were nearing votes this year to shut it entirely.

The institution was created in 2018 at the urging of then governor Jerry Brown, with a planned state investment of $175 million (£125 million), as a means of helping Californians quickly get retrained for new jobs requiring competency certificates in fast-growing industries.

That may remain a valid goal. The college’s problems, Ms Howle concludes in her report, appear due more to mismanagement than any fundamental misreading of the need.

Calbright’s first president, Heather Hiles, resigned in January 2020, after less than a year of her four-year contract, under criticism that included high executive salaries. Ms Hiles, a technology entrepreneur, was paid $398,000, exceeding the amount paid to any other community college leader in the state.

The college also made fundamental mistakes that included offering a two-year programme in cybersecurity while most jobs using those skills require a bachelor’s degree, the audit found.

“We acknowledge that Calbright made early missteps,” Pamela Haynes, a political and labour activist who serves as president of Calbright’s board of trustees, said.

But, Ms Haynes said, “necessary changes have been made to course-correct and implement rigorous internal controls where needed”, leaving Calbright on the “seven-year start-up timeline” first envisioned by the state legislature.

The lawmaker who requested the audit, state assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat who chairs the assembly’s higher education committee, said it was too late. “The state auditor’s findings have only furthered my resolve that the legislature must end the Calbright College experiment,” Mr Medina said on Twitter.

The audit found that, of the 904 students who enrolled at Calbright in the year after its October 2019 opening, 384 students dropped out, 87 were inactive for at least 90 days, and 12 received a certificate. California’s 115 traditional community colleges meanwhile enrol more than 2 million students.

Among its criticisms, the audit found Calbright failed to develop an overall strategy for spending its state allocation, took too long to develop a student support system, and didn’t properly partner with employers.

But, Ms Howle said, Calbright’s current leadership “has taken some initial steps to address the deficiencies we observed”, and the college could yet “fulfil its purpose and help address barriers that many Californians face to complete a postsecondary education to improve their economic mobility”.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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