Students worry as California’s online community college confronts offline woes
In SummaryCalifornia’s first-in-the-nation online community college now has 450 students — with no full-time faculty, no CEO and no political champion. What will Calbright's future be?
It’s quiet in the spare bedroom of Maria Garcia’s cheerful Antioch duplex as she sits down to study on a Friday morning. Her husband has been off working construction since 3:00 am, and Garcia, 24, will spend the day on her laptop, poring over a lesson on encrypted communication. It’s one more step on a path she hopes will lead to a cybersecurity certificate from Calbright College — California’s new online community college — and a job that pays a living wage.
Of the more than 450 students who have enrolled at Calbright since it launched statewide October 1, Garcia is one of only a couple dozen who have passed its course in basic workplace skills and moved on to career training. Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law establishing the college in 2018, with the goal of providing flexible job training for working adults without college degrees. Calbright currently offers certificates (though not degrees) in medical coding, IT or cybersecurity.
But despite her swift progress, Garcia is troubled: Just two weeks ago, the college’s CEO, Heather Hiles, announced her resignation after less than a year on the job. Garcia saw Hiles as a role model, a woman in an executive position who spoke at a Salesforce summit and hobnobbed with former president Barack Obama.
“I thought, if the director was at all these big conferences, she can really help us get jobs,” she said. Garcia said Hiles’ abrupt exit earlier this month — which came after clashes with community college faculty and the signing of a half-million-dollar, no-bid contract for executive recruitment — made her ask herself: “How can I trust this college?”
Garcia’s not the only one asking that question. Calbright has survived the departure of the governor who championed it, complaints from faculty organizations that it is duplicating programs that already exist at other community colleges, and an unsuccessful attempt by Assembly Democrats last year to slash its funding. But it still has not hired any full-time instructors, and Hiles’ departure effective March 31 has revived faculty criticism that the college is squandering state money.
Assemblyman Jose Medina told CalMatters he has requested a state audit of the college’s finances. Calbright’s supporters say to give it time, noting that the Legislature set a rapid timetable for the college to enroll its first class.
“I don’t think you can point to many examples in the country where a college is conceived and active and up and running in a 18-month period,” said community colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. “We have to be realistic about the expectations we put on the college and be proud of what it’s accomplished.”
But the early stumbles illustrate the tough questions Calbright must answer if it’s going to succeed in the face of critics who’d like to see it scaled back or even shut down. Those include how to place graduates in jobs, whether the college looks more like a traditional community college or the private online schools it’s trying to compete with, and how to create a curriculum that provides enough personal attention but is scalable to the tens of thousands of students it wants to eventually serve.
Interviews with students show the appeal of Calbright’s skills-based, go-at-your-own-pace approach to learning — but also the extent to which the college has sometimes struggled to implement it.
At her computer, Garcia logs onto Calbright’s website, then scrolls through her assignment. Calbright offers its IT and cybersecurity certifications through CompTIA, a non-profit widely recognized in the industry for providing entry-level job skills. Students review CompTIA lessons, study flashcards, then answer questions on the Calbright site.
But the CompTIA lessons are dry, Garcia says, and don’t provide enough explanation for her to grasp the material. “Just reading about it, it’s not enough,” she says. So she does her own research, tracking down YouTube videos that break down each concept.
Calbright officials say the college plans to develop its own custom software but for now is relying on prepackaged curriculum. The basic skills class that all students must take relies heavily on links to the Department of Labor, Google, LinkedIn and Khan Academy. Students can earn badges for such skills as “Building Trust” and “Being an Effective Team Member,” then upload them to their LinkedIn profiles.
Spokesman Taylor Huckaby said the college is still in an experimental phase, and will draw on the experiences of Garcia and her classmates — who pay no tuition — to create future courses.
“We need to get all the information from this beta cohort early on, so that when we’re building our custom product it’s what people want, not what we think they want,” Huckaby said.
A message from Garcia’s instructor shows up in her inbox. He praises her homework, but asks if she can answer questions in complete sentences. “This will help me to provide more actionable feedback to your learning,” he writes.
One of the major challenges of online education, experts say, is creating opportunities for students to connect with professors and their peers. At Calbright, one dean and three part-time instructors oversee instruction for the 275 students enrolled in the IT and cybersecurity tracks.
Students are encouraged to post thoughts and questions to online message boards, but “there’s not much of an incentive to read what other people wrote,” said Kevin Tostado, a 34-year-old film producer and stay-at-home dad working towards his IT certificate. “I haven’t seen any interactivity among students so far.”
At first, communicating with Calbright staff was challenging, Garcia said. She would submit assignments in reading and math, then wait days for them to be graded so she could move on. “I told them politely, ‘You guys need to be on top of my assignments,’ ” she said. After her email to a counselor — Calbright calls them “learner advocates” — she got an apology, and started receiving feedback more quickly, “even on the weekend.”
Self-starters and stranded workers
That kind of persistence has helped Garcia make the most of Calbright. Focused and driven, Garcia came to the United States from El Salvador on her own at age 15. She tried traditional community college but was unable to get financial aid and fell behind when classes conflicted with her job at a preschool. Instead, she became a pro at navigating the Bay Area’s web of non-profit job training programs. At San Francisco’s Dev/Mission, she got a laptop and learned to code. When she’s not studying at Calbright, she’s cramming for another IT certification offered by Google.
Like Garcia, a number of Calbright’s first class of students seem to be go-getters and early adopters. A third already have bachelor’s or associate’s degrees. (Most found out about the college through targeted Facebook ads, Huckaby said.) Tostado has attended two other startup colleges. He’s already completed a bachelor’s in engineering and an online master’s of business administration, and says he’s not worried that Calbright hasn’t yet earned accreditation. “Even if it never got accredited, it’s all about the skills and mindset I’ll learn.”
But if Calbright succeeds in enrolling large numbers of what its supporters call “stranded workers,” it will have to figure out how to serve students who are less proactive and tech-savvy.
“We know that students who do not have strong study skills, who do not have strong personal support networks are particularly vulnerable, in the sense that they tend not to do as well in purely online coursework as they would if they were in a classroom,” said Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who recently co-published a study of the promises and drawbacks of online education. “That population…needs a lot of academic and personal support in order to succeed.”
The kind of support offered to students also matters, Baum said. “If you’re looking at a person on a computer screen and they’re responding and you’re having a conversation, that’s very different than ‘Send in your question and you’ll get a response the next day.’ ”
Christie Akins, who directs Calbright’s IT and cybersecurity programs, says she personally holds a video conference with every student to learn about their career goals. “We know our learners. We don’t think of them as a cohort or a big group of learners,” she said. “We think of them as individuals and what their needs are.”
Just how Calbright will help students find jobs, however, is still unclear. The college’s plan calls for students to complete apprenticeships with employers after they complete their courses, but it has yet to create any formal partnerships with companies or unions.
Garcia says every day she Googles “Calbright” and “partners” hoping for more information. She recently quit a part-time job in San Francisco; it paid $20 per hour, but the income barely outweighed what she spent on food and BART fare. Her dream is to become a penetration tester, one of the white-hat hackers who help companies find weaknesses in their computer security. Even an entry-level technology job could help her afford to go back to school and earn a bachelor’s degree, maybe give her a shorter commute.
Huckaby said Calbright had been in discussions with Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and Salesforce about possible agreements, though nothing has been signed. “We are looking at major tech employers, especially employers that have remote work opportunities,” he said. Any partnership, he said, would be aimed at getting jobs for current Calbright students as well as developing custom curriculum for the company down the road.
Even within the college, however, there seems to be confusion about what Calbright can promise. “We do guarantee placement,” Akins told CalMatters. But after consulting with Huckaby, the Calbright spokesperson, she clarified that the college could not guarantee a job, just the opportunity for an apprenticeship.
Still, she said, even without a job, “certifications are a tangible improvement for learners in their job search.”
‘They’re not ready for us’
Charles Smith, 53, hopes Calbright can make good on its promises. The former federal employee has already been let down once — he spent nearly $30,000 pursuing a doctorate in business administration at Argosy University, before the troubled for-profit school shut down last year.
As a student at Calbright, he’s run into some technical difficulties. After he’d completed the basic skills course, it took weeks before he was cleared to start his IT program, he said. He kept receiving emails from the college that mistakenly said he hadn’t completed any coursework. “I do get the feeling they’re not ready for us,” he said.
But Smith said he appreciates the attention he gets from Calbright staff. After he scored low on a practice exam, an instructor scheduled a Zoom meeting to review the material.
“They really want you to learn something,” he said. “Money’s not controlling the curriculum. At my other school, it was money first, then the education.”
That public mission could help Calbright stand out in a crowded online education market, said Zachary Pardos, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education who specializes in educational technology. “People are going to be comparing you to all the online offerings out there, and there’s a lot of competition,” he said.
One advantage the community college system offers is the opportunity to transfer to a UC or Cal State campus, Pardos said. Calbright’s leaders should ask themselves, “In what ways is it a California community college? What does it share in common with other California community colleges?” he said.
While Calbright has marketed itself as an alternative to predatory for-profit colleges, it sometimes seemed to be running away from its community college roots under Hiles, an education technology entrepreneur who had worked in venture capital and philanthropy. Management tried to hire faculty without consulting with the community college system’s academic senate — a departure from normal hiring practices in the system — and peppered press releases with ed tech buzzwords like “learner” and “competency.” Hiles’ $385,000 salary drew the wrath of faculty concerned about tight budgets and declining enrollment at brick-and-mortar colleges. Even the college’s name seemed plucked from Silicon Valley.
“While Calbright could have attached itself to an existing California community college and budded off over time, they chose to act like a start-up company,” said Eric Kaljumägi, president of the Community College Association, a faculty union. “It is unclear whether their ‘new kind of college’ model can succeed, but so far they’re off to a rocky start.”
Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said his organization still believes Calbright should be scrapped and its funding redistributed to beef up online classes at existing colleges.
The community colleges’ Board of Governors oversees Calbright; its president, Tom Epstein, declined to comment for this story. In a statement at the time of her departure, Hiles called leading Calbright a “great privilege” but said it was time to return to other professional projects.
Oakley described Hiles’ tenure as a culture clash. “It’s sometimes difficult for people from the private sector to move to the public sector,” he said. “Certainly there was a lot of concern about her ability to form good relationships with the myriad of constituencies that needed to be engaged to ensure Calbright’s success.”
Some view Hiles’ exit as an opportunity for the state to correct course on a project on which it’s already spent $140 million, with another $20 million proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom for next year.
“I have questions on how effective it’s been,” said Medina, when asked why he requested the audit of the college. A legislative committee must sign off on the request before it’s sent to the state auditor. Another hearing on Calbright scheduled for this week in the state Senate education committee was postponed, but staff say it will be held sometime in February.
Meanwhile, Smith, the former for-profit college student, says he will speed up his studying so he can earn his IT certificate quickly — just in case.
Garcia has her own suggestions for improving Calbright. The college needs a mobile platform, she says, so students like her can complete assignments while commuting to work. And it could take some cues from Google, whose IT course includes videos and live chat, and connects students to a virtual machine so they can practice their skills in a real world setting.
In-person events like hackathons would allow her to connect with mentors, meet fellow students, and create projects that she can put on her resume.
“We would like to see more engagement,” she said. “I think tech companies are creating programs that are way better than this. And it shouldn’t be like that because California is a state. Calbright should be the best.”
This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.