In summary

The online-only community college has made positive steps in the wake of a state audit and legislative criticism.

In California’s constellation of community colleges, Calbright College is shifting from a dying star to something less nebulous.

California’s only fully online community college is no longer struggling for students as the state’s tiniest. Calbright now educates 2,300 Californians, up from about 1,000 a year ago, exceeding enrollment of four brick-and-mortar community colleges and growing at a considerable clip even as more than 40 other campuses continue to shed students and the system as a whole is just now rebounding from an enrollment collapse.

The campus’s enrollment is growing by about 8% monthly. At that pace, it’ll hit 3,000 students by early summer.

Students are also sticking around longer. However, still less than 10% of students earn a certificate within a year of studies, new data show, even though the college advertises that students can complete the three main programs in less than a year.

The campus’s enrollment is growing by about 8% monthly. At that pace, it’ll hit 3,000 students by early summer.

Calbright’s model of providing certificates rather than degrees in a few subject areas that have employer demand is appealing to a growing number of older students, many without a high school diploma. Unlike the traditional higher-education model of long semesters and class lectures, students at Calbright complete course sections en route to a final exam at a pace that works for them. There are no lectures led by instructors, but teachers and tutors are on standby if students need help.

The campus doesn’t charge tuition, uses digital-only textbooks free of cost, and provides Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots on loan to students who seek them without charging a dime.

Several students who spoke with CalMatters said the industries for which Calbright prepares them are friendly to work-from-home arrangements, something they crave after years of being on their feet in service or construction jobs.

“There’s no way I’m going back to restaurants,” said Jeremy Cox, 48, a Calbright student living near Long Beach and inaugural president of the college’s student government. “Now that I have a family, I’m not willing to give up those times” working 50-hour weeks on weekends and holidays. 

Trying period, new data

Calbright’s recent good news is a welcome change for the nascent college, which has already survived several attempts by state lawmakers to completely defund it and endured a scathing state audit since former Gov. Jerry Brown willed it into existence in 2018.

That state audit said, essentially,  get better, or shut down.

Its leaders got the message.

“We are continuing to submit and meet every milestone that has been laid out for us in terms of our legislative milestones” and audit recommendations, said Ajita Talwalker Menon, Calbright president and CEO.

Calbright shared detailed completion data with CalMatters that tracked how many new students remained enrolled or finished with their studies 9-to-12-months later — the first time the college has shared this information publicly. 

  • Between late 2020 and late 2021, 7% to about 40% of new students who started at Calbright remained enrolled or completed their studies nine months to a year later — the rest withdrew. 
  • In the most recent data, those still enrolled or finished is way up — 53% and 70%, respectively, for students who started in the first two calendar quarters of 2022.
  • Still, fewer than 10% of students complete their studies within a year, though the data stops at the end of 2022 and doesn’t fully capture students who enrolled that year.

Calbright’s leadership stresses that the college is designed to give students considerable flexibility to earn their certificates. Unlike the traditional higher-education model in which students enroll at the start of a semester and earn degrees based on how many terms and courses they complete, Calbright uses a “competency-based” model. In that approach, students pass lessons as quickly or slowly as they can, without penalty. That, in turn, means some students can finish in a few months, while others may need more than a year.

A full apples-to-apples comparison to the community college system averages is impossible because Calbright doesn’t use a semester model but rather enrolls new students weekly. Calbright’s students are also much older than the system average. Still, zeroing in on just students older than 25  — practically all of Calbright’s students — systemwide retention levels drop to about 50% semester-to-semester in 2019-20, the most recent data.

By that measure, Calbright is currently keeping more of its students than the systemwide average.

Calbright has similarities to other community colleges

Though Calbright’s completion rates after a year seem low, the community college system overall historically has posted paltry success rates — just 16% of students earned a certificate, degree or transferred to a four-year institution within three years, even though achieving those milestones should take two years or less for full-time students.

But nearly half of community college students earn so little that they qualify for tuition waivers. Most enroll part-time, often because they work full-time as well — meaning few can actually finish “on time.” State financial aid policy also disfavors community college students for other expenses, like food and housing.

Basically, for many community college students, a key reason for not completing school is because life gets in the way: bills, family obligations, financial emergencies.

It’s no different at Calbright.

“Life, it keeps happening,” said Cox, the Calbright student. “When you first find something like this, it's like, ‘Yeah, I'm gonna do it, this will be great.’ And then a month in, it's like, ‘I'm now sleep deprived, I have to study after I get home from work, I've got kids to take care of.’”

But while the traditional college model would require students to drop out or take fewer classes — all at a financial cost — Calbright’s self-paced approach appeals to both students taking their time and others who want to speed through lessons.

Cox studies about six hours a week for his program on information technology. The former restaurant manager and sommelier is a stay-at-home dad caring for two children. Calbright estimates that students who commit six to 12 hours a week of study can complete their certificates in 8 to 10 months.

That’s too long for Melvin Hunte, 42, who’s in the same program as Cox and lives in Fresno. The former journeyman electrician nearly became a truck driver until he decided to pursue a career in information technology. After spotting a Calbright advertisement on LinkedIn, he was a student a week later. He commits 60 hours a week to his studies in IT, he told CalMatters, with a goal of finishing his certificate in two months and later attending another online university with a similar self-paced model — Western Governors University — to enroll in an accelerated master’s degree program.

Too much freedom?

Cox said the extended flexibility may be a “double-edged sword” for some. 

Around the time he became student body president, Cox spoke with 10 fellow students about what the college could change. Surprisingly, they wanted more accountability from the college, such as having to restart a portion of the course if they don’t log in after an extended period of inactivity.

Nonetheless, Cox recognized that other students with busy lives need all the flexibility they can gather. There’s no right answer for helping the millions of working adults in California with no college degree, he added.

Hunte agrees with the latter points.. “If you put a time constraint on someone, that's just adding more pressure on top of pressure for them,” he said.

Calbright reports that it has a team of staffers that calls, emails or texts students who haven’t logged into their learning portals in 10 or more days. Nearly half of those students contacted returned to their studies, according to Calbright data.

“They certainly texted or messaged to keep up with my progress when it appeared I was silent or absent for longer than expected,” wrote Linda Torres, who completed her studies and is now preparing for an industry certification exam, in a LinkedIn message.

That outreach is one of the various reforms at Calbright that prompt leadership to say they’re making good on the changes the 2021 audit recommended.

Looking ahead

Since that 2021 audit, Calbright has officially fulfilled three of 10 recommendations, but also extended its own completion dates for some others. College officials told CalMatters they consider that all but one will be complete by June 30, including tracking its student-outreach efforts. Others include paying its workers at similar levels as other community colleges, an implementation plan that’ll debut at a May board meeting and another plan for creating academic programs that employers and students value.

The auditor’s office will publish its assessment of Calbright’s progress with those recommendations around November. 

The campus said it’s on track to design and validate 10 more academic programs by July of this year, adding to the six it runs already, meeting a requirement in its founding legislation. Those in development include course sequences in medical billing, 3D animation and game design, licensed vocational nursing in a partnership with a state labor union and others, a spokesperson wrote.

Calbright also expects to learn if it'll receive accreditation by the end of 2023. If that happens, it'll be more than a year ahead of schedule. Once accredited, Calbright can begin awarding students school credit for skills they learned through previous work, which would fulfill the final audit recommendation. 

As Calbright shines brighter, its leaders will seek additional funding than Calbright’s current annual state support.

“$15 million is not enough to grow and scale and serve students in the way that we need to,” said Menon, Calbright’s president. 

more on higher education

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...