When California created its first online community college in 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who championed the idea, called the move a "juggernaut that cannot be stopped."
"California is a leader. It will lead in this," he said.
But nearly two years later, the college, now called Calbright, is enduring new scrutiny from some lawmakers and faculty groups who question its purpose.
Calbright's fate matters not only to California but also to other states envisioning a public response to private nonprofit and for-profit online colleges that together enroll hundreds of thousands of students.
"If it's successful it will inspire others, and if it fails it will deter others," said Trace Urdan, managing director at education consulting and investment banking firm Tyton Partners, in an interview with Education Dive.
The potential for disruption, or reclaiming a massive contingent of students, is high, he said. "There is a universe in which public colleges and universities drive the private operators in this sector out of business because people know and trust those public institution brands much better."
That's the angle California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley took with a skeptical state Senate panel earlier this month. "California needs its own response" to online education providers such as Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University and the University of Phoenix, he said during the hearing.
But doubts about the college that were widespread when lawmakers first considered it in 2018 were again on display at the hearing. State Sen. Richard Roth, a Democrat and chair of the budget subcommittee on education, repeatedly questioned whether the online college duplicates other online education efforts already underway at California's community colleges.
This week, the state Legislature's joint audit committee unanimously voted to audit Calbright, contingent on the Legislature approving the college's funding for next year. Tom Epstein, president of Calbright's Board of Trustees, asked the committee to delay the audit, saying that because the college only began enrolling students in October 2019, the inquiry was "premature." The audit will evaluate the college's finances, student progress and whether its offerings overlap with existing community college programs in the state.
The nascent college has also been hit with senior staffing churn, highlighted by the resignation of its first CEO in January and the departure of two senior administrators a month later. The college announced an interim CEO, Ajita Talwalker Menon, in February. The Obama administration alum advised the college system on Calbright's programs.
In an interview with Education Dive a week after the hearing, Roth said Calbright "needs to be reevaluated." As vice chair of the joint audit committee, he voted for Calbright's audit.
To him, the central question is why the existing community colleges aren't enough to address the state's online education needs. If there are inadequacies, he asked, "why would not more attention to those programs and those community colleges with perhaps some additional funding address the need?"
Roth's preference is to move the now-independent college into an existing campus or a consortium of colleges, he told Education Dive. These ideas were floated in 2017, when the plan for an online college was still in its infancy.
Is Calbright on track?
Despite Calbright's plans to partner with employers to help its graduates find jobs, no such relationships were in place, Epstein said at the hearing.
And while the college enrolls 510 students, most are in foundational courses while just 38 are in one of its three academic pathways: cybersecurity, information technology and medical coding. Except for the pathway directors, the college has no full-time faculty, though many are tenured at one of the other community colleges in the system.
Calbright also isn't accredited, but leaders expect to submit an application to the Distance Education Accrediting Commission by October. The accreditation process can take up to two years.
Still, Calbright says its current enrollment levels and the creation of three academic pathways puts it ahead of key legislative milestones it had to meet.
Initial arguments supporting the need for the college focused on addressing 2.5 million "stranded" workers between the ages of 25 and 34 who had a high school diploma but no college degree. An online college with short-term credentials pegged to industry demands would aid those unable to access existing community college programs.
But Roth wondered how that data translates into the state needing an online college, arguing that local colleges can analyze regional demand and respond to skills shortages. A legislative analyst's report in 2018 said there's no evidence an online community college "will address the key barriers" these workers face.
"I believe my concerns are shared by at least some in the state Senate, if not my Senate leadership," Roth told Education Dive.
State Sen. Connie Leyva, who chairs the Senate's education committee, was more supportive of the college. "We do have some criticisms of how Calbright has moved forward, but I just don't want us to throw out the baby with the bathwater," she said at the hearing.
Fitting with the system
Calbright was funded with $100 million in startup money plus $20 million in annual support. Faculty critics of the online college say those funds could have gone to existing online services at the system's 114 brick-and-mortar colleges. "It would be wise to take these resources and redeploy them" to the other colleges, Jim Mahler, president of the union council that represents system faculty, said at the hearing.
Despite the large infusion of state cash, Calbright has been slow to spend it. The college spent just $3.4 million in its first year, none of which came out of the $100 million one-time fund, Senate budget documents note. This year the online college plans to spend $50.3 million.
A key criticism of Calbright is that its programs duplicate existing academic offerings at California's other community colleges, in violation of state rules. At the hearing, Academic Senate President John Stanskas said Calbright's programs are already available on the state's online course exchange portal.
More than 50 colleges share courses on that exchange. A separate effort is underway to include courses that don't require students to reapply with every college whose course they're taking. So far six colleges are members of this one-stop shop and more are expected to join in the coming months. Full integration for the entire system of more than 2 million students isn't expected until 2023. Calbright expects to enroll 22,400 students by 2026.
Oakley and Epstein argued that while Calbright's content has some overlap with existing system programs, the structure of those offerings sets the new college apart. Calbright doesn't follow a conventional academic calendar, instead allowing students to join on a rolling basis. It also permits students to pass sections of the program at their own pace by learning content and taking assessments to advance to the next lesson. It's a model called competency-based education. Students on traditional course schedules, even those online, generally can't speed ahead with their lessons.
"If it's successful it will inspire others, and if it fails it will deter others."
Managing director, Tyton Partners
During the hearing, state Sen. Richard Pan questioned whether competency-based education presented an "insurmountable barrier" that would require a separate college.
Oakley's office says Calbright is the only college in the system that has a competency-based design. But Mt. San Antonio College, whose president testified at the hearing, claims some of its short-term programs are competency-based. And Oakley said his team is preparing to submit regulations to the community college system's board of governors so other colleges can offer such instruction.
Meanwhile, California's chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), an early advocate of Calbright with 700,000 members, restated its support for the online college. Since the conversation around Calbright began, the online course exchange initiative has vastly improved, Kimberly Rosenberger, government relations advocate for SEIU's California council, said at the hearing. "We don't think that's a coincidence."
She anticipates closer ties between SEIU and Calbright, though no formal partnership exists yet. One of the group's affiliates, United Healthcare Workers, couldn't partner with Calbright on the medical coding program due to timing, instead signing up with Western Governors University. However, Rosenberger said the union wouldn't rule out a partnership with Calbright.
"Ultimately, we would like to see a public option," she said.