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How has Calbright Evolved Throughout the Pandemic?

We are moving out of our initial beta test period and into a new phase of high-quality growth.

Pamela Sanborn, Vice President for Learning and Instruction at Calbright College

Calbright promises an inclusive and highly adaptive approach that could provide low-income and working adults with the tools they need to further their careers. That said, the college met some resistance from existing community colleges, in addition to other hurdles in getting started. The onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic was also a shock to many educational institutions globally—but what impact, if any, did it have on Calbright’s online model in its nascent stages?

We spoke with the leadership at Calbright College to learn more about how the educational institution has evolved over the past year throughout the pandemic period and what this means for the trajectory of its programs’ and students’ growth over the next several years.

Meet the Expert: Pamela Sanborn, Vice President for Learning and Instruction at Calbright College

Majd SakrPamela Sanborn is the Interim Vice President for Learning and Instruction at Calbright College. Sanborn has had the pleasure of working with faculty, staff, and administrators to serve adult students with diverse academic, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds in the California Community Colleges (CCC) system for 18 years.

During her time as adjunct faculty, tenured faculty, and over the past 12 years in leadership roles, she has advocated for equity for students that traditionally have been underserved in our educational system. With her 26 years of experience in healthcare, she understands the benefits of working closely with industry partners and has served on many local, regional, and statewide education/industry collaborative committees.

Sanborn holds three degrees, including a bachelor’s of business administration from Davenport University, an associate in medical assisting from Cabrillo College, and a master’s of education – curriculum and instruction (career and technology education) from Concordia University.

Calbright College’s Programs and New Strategic Plan

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 careers.

The college’s first three program offerings for students were:

  • IT support
  • Cybersecurity
  • Medical coding

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 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 also works 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. Course offerings at the college are currently free, and will always be low- to no-cost.

Although it is currently unaccredited, legislation requires the college to become accredited by 2025. Calbright is working toward achieving that goal and is also pursuing a Department of Education-approved accreditation that will enable the college to have eligibility for student financial aid.

Scaling Calbright’s Innovative Training Programs

To date, Calbright has over 500 enrollees and is set to scale statewide over the next few years.

The college’s initial, limited program offerings have been intended to serve as a pilot “beta cohort” to allow administrators and instructors to ensure quality teaching and communications as it moves forward in expanding its programs and pursuing its larger rollout.

Mapping its plan for scaling up programs and growth, the college recently released its Strategic Vision plan. The plan outlines Calbright’s overarching direction for the next three years, as it shifts from an early launch phase into high-quality growth.

“I’m excited to present Calbright’s Strategic Vision, which sets ambitious goals to drive us towards a new phase of high-quality growth over the next three years,” said Calbright President & CEO Ajita Talwalker Menon.

“Amidst a global pandemic that has surfaced deep inequities throughout California and across the country, building a state-wide public, online, skills-based college designed around the unique needs of working adults is mission-critical. The Strategic Vision sets a course for the college to advance new solutions responsive to the realities communities are faced with, navigating economic uncertainty towards a more inclusive economic recovery.”

With benchmarks for success in place, Calbright aims to begin adding additional program pathways to its educational offerings.

The strategic vision sets out ambitious but achievable goals, with Calbright aiming to achieve the following goals by 2023:

  • Programs: Calbright has launched 10 new programs, including at least one developed with another Community Classroom Collaborative (CCC)
  • Enrollment: 5,000 students enrolled, with 75 percent from focus populations
  • Completion: 1,200 students have completed a Calbright program
  • Labor Market Outcomes: Between 250-550 students (depending on the pace of economic recovery) have attained a positive labor market outcome
  • Partnerships: Calbright has engaged 20 external partners
  • Governance: Calbright’s participatory governance structure is in place
  • Innovation: Calbright has operationalized innovation to drive student success and high-quality growth
  • Accredited: Calbright will be fully accredited ahead of schedule by the end of 2023
  • Acceleration: At the end of 2023, Calbright is ready to scale enrollment by 50 percent (to 7,500) the next year and keep growing, resources permitting
  • Influence: Calbright has become a nationally recognized model for innovation and equity in serving adults without degrees

Q&A with Pamela Sanborn on Calbright’s Evolution Over the Past Year Throughout the Pandemic Period How have Calbright College’s programs evolved in terms over the past year? What does this mean for the content and results of the programs?

Sanborn: Our three initial programs are going strong. We continue to make improvements to all of our programs including updating content, improving the students’ journey through our program, and providing additional support to our students with the help of our instructors, academic success counselors, and career services.

We have had students from our IT programs and medical coding program graduate, get their industry credentials, and get jobs. For many of our students, it is taking a bit longer to complete their programs but, as you know, our programs are flexibly paced so students can take the time they need to complete. This has been of great benefit to our students during this global pandemic.

In addition to our first three programs, we have recently launched a new program, Transition to Technology: Customer Relationship Management Platform Administration. This is the first program in our Transition to Technology series designed to prepare those who have little or no prior tech experience for careers in technology. The programs include both broad skills for working in the tech environment and knowledge of specific technologies that could open many potential career outcomes. Set to launch in the summer will be the second program in this series, Transition to Technology: IT Helpdesk Technician.

We are also expanding our programs in healthcare with a series of programs called Upskilling for Equitable Health Impacts. These programs will support and empower incumbent workers, especially certified nursing assistants, medical assistants, and licensed vocational nurses to attain new skills needed in their current occupational roles that lead to better, more equitable healthcare outcomes amidst changing industry conditions.

The first two programs in this series will focus on interpersonal skills for healthcare workers and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the healthcare setting. Has the pandemic influenced Calbright’s growth and operations? And how has Calbright set up its students for success throughout the pandemic period?

Sanborn: Although the pandemic did greatly impact our students, the operations of our college continued without interruption.

We first and foremost listened to our students and then worked very diligently to get them the support they needed, whether it was a loaner Chromebook or Wifi because the whole family suddenly had to adapt to remote learning or by providing them with free student assistance program resources through WellConnect.

For many of our students, the support came from their instructors and academic success counselors who helped them formulate a plan to navigate the family demands at home while still pursuing their personal educational goals. How have the internal operations of Calbright evolved since spring 2020? Has there been any growth or changes in the team, and how has this influenced the institution?

Sanborn: In the last year, we have hired full-time instructional and counseling faculty that are very dedicated to our students and the mission of our college. We have also continued to grow our leadership and support teams.

Hiring for key positions has allowed us to move forward with our mission and has had a direct effect on the support that we can provide our students. What are your expectations for the program’s evolution over the next few years? What does this look like in terms of numbers and data projections?

Sanborn: We are moving out of our initial beta test period and into a new phase of high-quality growth.

By the end of 2023, we will have launched 10 new programs (including at least one developed with another CCC). We also expect enrollment to rise tenfold during that same period, from 500 at the start of 2021 to 5,000 at the end of 2023. Our growing programs and partnerships will both drive and support this growth, as we simultaneously build out our systems, faculty, and staff to support more students.

For context, Calbright will expand much faster than the most comparable example of early growth. Western Governors University, which was also built from the ground up to provide CBE online, took nearly seven years to go from launching its first program to 5,000 students. Calbright will do it in just over four years.

Accreditation is also a top priority for Calbright. It is a key milestone that will set us up for both faster growth and long-term sustainability. That is why we have prioritized reaching it as quickly as possible, and we expect to remain ahead of schedule. We are already in the process of seeking approval from an accreditor recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Once Calbright is accredited, our students will have access to federal and state student aid. Pell Grants and Cal Grants can help working adults pay for childcare and limit the number of jobs they have to work, so they can afford to spend time on coursework and make more progress towards completion.

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.