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Calbright On a Roll: Enrollment Up 201 Percent Plus New Accreditation & Programs

It’s on a roll,” wrote veteran Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Goldie Blumenstyk about Calbright, California’s free online community college, in May 2023. And as a veteran journalist who’s covered higher education for 35 years, she ought to know.

At 3,240 students as of August 2023, Calbright’s enrollment soared by 201 percent from 1,078 students in July 2022—and also shot up a whopping 574 percent from only 481 students in July 2021. The college also reported that completion certificate awards rose by 102 percent year-over-year.

Moreover, a few weeks before in July, Calbright had also won its first accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). The college then reported it’s now up to 17 designed, validated, and approved programs, and has achieved every legislative milestone mandated by California’s government.

But following its launch in 2019, Calbright endured a rough start with a long period of slow growth. During those years, it survived numerous challenges from ardent adversaries who argued that the college should be defunded and closed.

What is Calbright?

We first covered Calbright College here at in a June 2020 feature titled “Calbright: What We Can Learn From the Nation’s First Online Community College.” In that piece, we pointed out that California’s former Governor Jerry Brown was especially concerned that millions of working adults without college degrees could lose their jobs because of threats from automation. Accordingly, he argued that California needed to provide a new means of economic mobility toward living-wage jobs through a pioneering college education model. Geared to these adults’ needs, Brown had advocated a brand-new paradigm that would deliver higher education that would be accessible, affordable, flexible, and competency-based.

Governor Brown signed the California Online Community College Act into law in July 2018. The Act mandated the creation of a radically innovative, exclusively online community college—free of charge to all Californians—that would help students rapidly earn credentials highly valued by industries hiring for good jobs.

Consistent with the legislation, Calbright dispensed with a formidable barrier working adults face at traditional colleges. That’s the Stanford-based Carnegie Foundation’s 113-year-old higher education credit hour metric that’s familiar to most of our readers.

Based on the Carnegie Unit originally developed for high schools, the credit hour is the time-based measure of educational attainment used throughout higher education across the United States. Here’s how the Foundation explains credit hours:

In higher education, students receive “credit hours,” a metric derived from the Carnegie Unit and based on the number of “contact hours” students spend in class per week in a given semester. A typical three-credit course, for example, meets for three hours per week over a fifteen-week semester. A student, then, might earn fifteen credit hours per semester (fifteen is standard full-time registration for a semester, thirty for an academic year) en route to a four-year bachelor’s degree requiring a total of 120 credits.

What is Competency-Based Education?

To the surprise of many observers, Calbright threw out the entire Carnegie credit hour system—and threw out grading and degrees along with it. Instead, the college substitutes a competency-based education (CBE) model, which awards academic credit towards certificates based not on time but on the demonstrated mastery of clearly defined competencies.

EDUCAUSE, the professional organization for higher education information system managers, offers one of the better explanations of the newer CBE model:

CBE replaces the conventional model in which time is fixed and learning is variable, with a model in which the time is variable and the learning is fixed. CBE is built around clearly defined competencies and measurable learning objectives that demonstrate mastery of those competencies.

Calbright officials point out that their CBE model’s individualized and flexible online instruction enables students to master material as quickly as they are able, which for thousands of students could be much sooner than a traditional college’s 15-week semester. Students can take extra time at a slower pace on difficult lessons, but they can also move swiftly through easier lessons they already understand.

That flexible pacing offers an attractive benefit to Calbright’s target market of busy working-age adults. It can help them reduce the time they need to invest to earn their credentials. Calbright says that working adults studying only five hours a week can complete most of its certificate programs in less than a year, but a full-time student could earn a certificate in as little as two months.

Interestingly enough, Calbright is not alone in adopting the competency-based model, and a growing number of CBE programs are starting to appear within higher education in the United States. For example, both Purdue Global’s ExcelTrack accelerated degree programs and the UW Flex Option offered by the University of Wisconsin System have recently added competency-based offerings. Moreover, America’s largest university, Salt Lake City-based Western Governors University, whose 2021 online enrollment surpassed 150,000 students, has applied a competency-based approach throughout its curricula since the college’s founding in 1997.

But Calbright wields a tremendous advantage that most other colleges who want to adopt the competency-based approach can’t exploit: free tuition. Dr. Paul LeBlanc, the visionary president of America’s second-largest college—Southern New Hampshire University—has written and spoken extensively on this issue.

In interviews promoting his 2021 book Students First: Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education, Dr. LeBlanc explains that the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid programs aren’t yet set up to reimburse institutions that completely apply a competency-based approach. He’s advocating that the Education Department develop parallel test regulations consisting of a new set of FSA rules for 100 percent CBE programs. This is similar to the test regulations that the ED promulgated for the first online education programs offered by colleges like the University of Phoenix in the late 1980s.

One current stumbling block involves the rule within the amended Higher Education Act of 1965 requiring colleges to demonstrate “regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors” to receive awards of FSA funds. In practice, demonstrating regular and substantive interaction is much easier for traditional time-based credit-hour programs than the newer competency-based programs, according to Dr. LeBlanc.

In fact, in 2017, Western Governors University faced a $712 million attempted clawback of federal student aid funds; that effort followed an audit by the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General that cited insufficient demonstrations of regular and substantive interactions within courses. Following a second investigation, the Inspector General’s opinion was subsequently overruled in 2019 by the Department’s Federal Student Aid Office.

Calbright’s Early Stumbles

However, despite enthusiastic early support from Governor Brown and his successor, Governor Gavin Newsom, the new Calbright College quickly ran into trouble.

For example, its first CEO, the former technology executive Heather Hiles, unexpectedly resigned in January 2020, only a year into her four-year, $385,000 annual contract. She had faced controversy after hiring a colleague for a high-paying Calbright recruiting job without first performing a competitive review of other candidates.

Early enrollment and certificate completion rates also fell way below expectations. The suboptimal showings prompted opponents within the California Assembly to carry out several unsuccessful attempts to defund the college.

Then, in May 2021, a withering state audit assigned responsibility for the poor performance to Calbright’s previous administration and defects in its strategy. The audit recommended the college’s closure unless its performance improved.

On a Roll: New CEO, New Accreditation—and New Students

But now, Calbright is on a roll thanks to the work of its new administration under President Ajita Talwalker Menon, who took over in February 2020 after serving as the senior advisor to the chancellor of the California Community Colleges System. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, she had previously served as a special assistant to the President for higher education policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council in the Obama Administration.

The new accreditation from DEAC—the Distance Education Accrediting Commission—amounts to a substantial win for the college. With accreditation, Calbright can now award transfer credits that students earned during prior work at other colleges. Such awards could lessen the amount of work that some students must complete to earn their certificates, reducing their time to graduation. This capability also puts Calbright in a much stronger competitive position against other colleges and could amount to a decisive factor for students choosing among online programs from several schools.

Calbright’s 201 percent enrollment climb over the past year also appears especially significant. That’s because Calbright already counts a larger enrollment than four of California’s brick-and-mortar community colleges. What’s more, CalMatters had reported in April 2023 that Calbright was adding new students at a rate of 8 percent per month. This consistent increase in enrollment comes during a period when California’s community college system is just now beginning to bounce back from an enrollment collapse—and while 40 of its other campuses continue to lose students.

Improving Time to Completion

Recently the college even demonstrated progress against a significant challenge identified by one of its harshest critics, education industry analyst Phil Hill.

In September 2023, Hill told Higher Ed Dive’s Danielle McLean that the 102 percent year-over-year increase in the number of credentials Calbright had awarded—from 116 in June 2022 to 286 in June 2023—still was “not even in the order of magnitude that they need to be producing at this stage.” He continued:

It’s better than it was before, I see some valuable learning that they’re doing as an organization. But what I don’t see is them getting anywhere close to the level of productivity that makes sense for what they should be doing.

Hill assailed Calbright’s model for not incentivizing students to complete their programs. He said the college’s challenge is that students aren’t making significant progress towards completion because Calbright had been too lenient about enabling students to finish programs according to schedules they chose.

Brendan O’Callaghan, Calbright’s vice president of marketing, countered Hill’s criticism. O’Callaghan said that earlier in 2023, the college had commissioned a pilot study of the effects when students in its customer relationship management (CRM) administration program were given completion deadlines. Consulting researchers from the School of Education at the University of California at Irvine had collaborated with Calbright on this analysis.

Although the timetable was nonbinding, O’Callaghan reported that after four months, the students working under the deadlines had completed 41 percent of their CRM program’s assignments during ten weeks. By contrast, during the same period their counterparts without deadlines had completed only 26 percent of their assignments.

In other words, the students working under the deadlines displayed a remarkable 58 percent improvement in time to completion. Calbright spokesperson Benjamin Wachs said in October 2023 that the school will soon roll out new deadlines based on the study’s results within every Calbright College certificate program.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.