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Calbright: What We Can Learn From the Nation's First Online Community College

“Calbright’s competency-based approach allows students that may have previous knowledge of or adopt the subject material well to complete courses more quickly, while students having difficulties learning material can take more time to understand and complete a course. Many existing programs do not support this approach, which is intended to provide people the ability to work in a much more individualized way and receive individualized support.”

Sally Johnstone, President of the National Center for Higher Education Management

Recently opened in October 2019, Calbright College is the nation’s first fully online community college. Offering degrees for working adults in information technology (IT), medical coding, and cybersecurity, Calbright is intended to be a publicly-offered program that provides high-quality, affordable, and flexible job training and education.

While many community colleges throughout California already provide online courses through the California Online Education Initiative, Calbright promises an inclusive and highly-adaptive approach that could provide low-income and working adults with the tools they need to further their career.

We talked to advocacy groups and program directors in online education to learn more about what went into launching Calbright College and what stakeholders in online education can learn from the new institution about filling gaps in the online education landscape.

Calbright College’s Launch and Design

While many existing community colleges in California already offer online courses, Calbright College offers an innovative model for students through its 100 percent online and flexible approach intended to make the program accessible to working and low-income student populations.

Calbright was born from legislation in June 2018, signed and passed by then- California Governor Jerry Brown to create the state’s first online-only community college. The mission of the college created by this legislation would be to provide economic mobility for working adults who lack easy access to traditional forms of education.

“In his second to the last year in office, Governor Jerry Brown was spending a lot of time thinking about legacy issues and one of the things that struck him was that literally millions of people in California are going to lose their jobs because of automation over the next decade,” says Sally Johnstone, president at the National Center for Higher Education Management. Even without foreknowledge of the current coronavirus pandemic, Brown knew education in California had to prepare to support the state’s economic security and citizens’ ability to get careers that pay a living wage in the evolving market, she explains.

But people who are already working often do not have the time or ability to go to a brick-and-mortar college campus and enroll in classes full-time even online. So, the legislation outlined that the program would have to meet this gap in services, meaning it would have to be designed as flexible, but focused on specific educational tracks. This would allow students to continue working and then leverage their education to pursue real world opportunities immediately.

The new online college was officially named Calbright College in June of 2019. It commenced its pilot programs in October 2019, beginning with partnerships in medical coding, cybersecurity, and career readiness training.

When launching the program, Calbright administrators had to build the school from the ground up as the school was an entirely new statewide school district. California state legislation required the school to have at least one student by the end of 2019, so between February and October, the college hired key team members, created organization divisions and built its first three program pathways.

“It was an extraordinary effort that took an immense amount of work not only in the nuts-and-bolts of building this ‘public sector startup,’ but navigating legislative deadlines, political stakeholders, relationships with unions, industry experts, business interests, the other 114 community colleges, and the state Academic Senate concurrently,” says Taylor Huckaby, director of communications at Calbright College. “Marketing strategy had to be created to ensure we were reaching the appropriate target demographics, finance and accounting systems had to be built, communications functions stood up—all the things that go into making a college functional had to be planned, hired for, and executed.”

What Programs Does Calbright College Offer?

The college’s first three program offerings for students are IT support, cybersecurity, and medical coding. These programs are supported by the college’s current organizational divisions, including student services, curriculum, external affairs, partnership development, and administration.
Calbright’s three existing program pathways each have two courses. The first course is an essential skills course to ready students for the workforce called “College and Career Essential Skills.” The second course is a capstone class that ends with certification in the respective topic. Calbright describes each program pathway to be competency-based and online, meaning students can complete modules at their own pace with consistent support from its counselors and academic advisors.

Because the courses are self-paced, Calbright gives an estimated range for completion. The IT and cybersecurity programs generally take four to six months to complete, while medical coding takes eight to ten months.

Calbright says it is now working with industry experts, unions, and businesses to build partnerships so that students can have easy access to opportunities and are well-positioned for career success following certification. The college also states that course offerings at the college are currently free, and will always be low-to-no-cost.

“Apprenticeships can be part of this solution, and we’re working on agreements to articulate into other community colleges’ competency-based education offerings and degree-granting pathways,” Huckaby explains. “Our competition is the for-profit education industry that leaves students in debt and with questionably useful credentials.”

Although it is currently unaccredited, legislation requires the college be accredited by 2025. Calbirght said it is working toward achieving that goal and may achieve that accreditation as early as next year. The college is now pursuing a Department of Education-approved accreditation that will enable the college to have eligibility for student financial aid.

To date, Calbright has 523 enrollees and is set to scale statewide over the next few years.

The college’s initial, limited program offerings are intended to serve as a pilot “beta cohort” to allow administrators and instructors to ensure quality teaching and communications in its early stage before expanding its programs and pursuing its larger rollout.

“We are building a data set from our first cohort of students, taking those learnings and applying them to our organizational structure, curriculum development, technology development, and outreach efforts,” Huckaby comments on the process. “We have to start small before going big, understanding our students, their circumstances, and which solutions work best for this population.”

Johnstone agrees on the importance of collecting data and learning from the initial rollout of the program. Beyond supporting the growth of the Calbright program, the findings will be shared statewide and can be used as a model for development of online education programs across the nation.

Calbright says it will assess and leverage this information in late summer as it prepares for its next phase of rollout.

Challenges to Calbright’s Growth

While Calbright’s beginnings mark an innovative step to fill the gap in online education, the college still faces challenges in its path forward due to state budgeting cuts and backlash from critics of the program.

One main speedbump just popped up in California Governor Gavin Newsom’s latest revision to the state’s education budget proposal on May 15. The budget changes include a $6.5 billion cut to California public schools’ main source of funding. For Calbright, the $20 million to be allocated to its efforts would be reduced by $3 million to $17 million in the proposal. Meanwhile, other community colleges would see a $40 million reduction in programs to support students under the new proposal if passed.

Beyond the clear budgeting challenge it presents Calbright, these new proposed cuts are stoking the fire of California’s other community colleges and advocacy groups, including the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges (FACCC) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), which have already opposed Calbright since its inception.

“There’s definitely demand for online education but Calbright really doesn’t differ that much, if at all, from what our existing community colleges offer online,” says Evan Hawkins, executive director at FACCC. “We have a platform that allows students to take courses online at any college within our system. So Calbright seems to be competing against our own system, which doesn’t make sense at all.”

Jeffery Freitas, president at CFT, echoes that sentiment and says the redundancy results in a waste of funds that could better be reallocated to grow and strengthen programs offered by existing community colleges.

The California Federation of Teachers launched a petition the week of May 11 urging Gov. Newsom to “end the Calbright experiment.” The petition contends that the funds spent on Calbright would be better invested into existing community college districts and their online programs. Over 1,000 college educators and faculty have signed the petition to date, according to Freitas.

A response to the petition from the governor’s office remains to be seen.

The Future of Calbright College

Despite the uncertain state budgeting process and criticism, Calbright is confident its competency-based model and ability to “rapidly spin up” program pathways will provide a viable answer to the looming unemployment crisis.

“We can’t allow the lessons of the 2008 recession to go unlearned,” says Huckaby. “We anticipate the need will be greater than what the system can currently provide, and hope to find solutions for people that move them into a position of greater economic security and career opportunity.”

Johnstone also rebukes criticism towards the college, emphasizing that Calbright’s model provides students a unique opportunity not available through existing programs. The key differences she says include Calbright’s competency-based approach and flexible program structure.

“Calbright’s competency-based approach allows students that may have previous knowledge of or adopt the subject material well to complete courses more quickly, while students having difficulties learning material can take more time to understand and complete a course,” Johnstone reiterates. “Many existing programs do not support this approach, which is intended to provide people the ability to work in a much more individualized way and receive individualized support.”

Calbright also does not have the baggage, like bureaucracy and outdated structures, a more traditional community college may have, Johnstone comments. Existing community colleges’ online programs, as highlighted in many colleges’ transfer of classes online during the current coronavirus pandemic, replicate a classroom model. But this model is outdated and can be inaccessible to students with full time jobs. Unlike traditional online classes, Calbright is not designed to replicate a classroom, but to incorporate the technologies available now with the ability to be adapted as it improves.

Calbright’s learning materials and content for courses are prepackaged in automated programs, so a student can tap into them at the pace they need. Students also have online support from career services, counselors, advisors and coaches. The model allows students to access classes and support flexibly to complete programs in line with their own schedule, as well as at their own pace of learning, Calbright says.

“We’re designed to create and execute quickly,” Huckaby notes. “Beyond the beta cohort, we are rapidly responding to the looming unemployment crisis and state training needs in various sectors.”

So what can stakeholders in education learn from Calbright?

Perhaps the most significant takeaway to be garnered from the college’s work is the need for online education to effectively support the working student population’s ability to access online education and opportunities.

Whether Calbright College succeeds and grows into a masthead in online education remains to be seen, but the institution and its mission clearly highlight gaps in online education that must be met by either new or existing programs.

Ultimately stakeholders in education will have to cooperate in navigating the future needs of students as the market evolves and global situations demand online solutions.

Calbright has already offered a glimpse into what this future may look like and will be a college to watch over the coming years. Even in its early stages, the college is worthy of students’ consideration when seeking programs offering opportunities for advancement of education and careers.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.