In summary

Calbright College was supposed to be California’s public option alternative to for-profits, but a new state audit slams the college for failing to live up to its ideals and recommends school closure unless it commits to a slew of improvements.

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Calbright College may be flunking out. 

On Tuesday, a scathing report from the state auditor ripped the embattled online community college for failing to live up to its ideals. Among the key findings: Most of its students have dropped out or halted their academic progress and Calbright has no process to ensure its students obtain good jobs.

Calbright, created in 2018, has never enjoyed legislative support. Its first champion, former Gov. Jerry Brown, and his successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, have each muscled the experimental institution over the annual budget finish line, upsetting faculty groups and unions that call the college a boondoggle and say it siphons money from existing and beleaguered community colleges. 

And although a leadership shakeup is leading to positive changes, Calbright still lacks “adequate goals,” wrote California State Auditor Elaine Howle. 

“We determined that Calbright’s potential value to the State is significant,” the audit reads. 

But… there’s always a but. 

If the college doesn’t conduct “meaningful implementation” of the auditor’s proposed reforms by the end of next year, “we recommend that the Legislature eliminate the college,” the auditor wrote. Calbright has enrolled 904 students since it started but only 12 have graduated by the end of its first year, the audit said – nowhere close to the 2.5 million California adults ages 25 to 34 with some or no college experience that Calbright was created to serve.

It’s the latest salvo against Calbright, coming one week after the state Assembly voted 71-0 to defund the college by 2024, freeing as much as $82 million in start-up funds plus the $15 million the college is set to receive annually for its operations. 

In written responses as part of the audit report, Calbright leaders agreed with all the findings. The college was already on its way to making necessary reforms, said Pamela Haynes, president of the board of trustees that oversees Calbright. “We will meet every single requirement in terms of timeline in order to do that,” she said.

Haynes tried to distance the college’s current leadership from the audit. “It was the former CEO and executive team that were problematic,” she said.

Vision versus reality 

Calbright is a free public option for students left out by traditional higher education. The college was envisioned to provide job-ready certificates — not degrees —  to adults with little to no college education who could use Calbright to get the necessary academic foundation to pursue a degree. 

Brown, the architect of Calbright, said its initial stumbles are to be expected. 

“Government is not a place normally of innovation,” Brown said in an interview with CalMatters Monday before the audit dropped. “It takes things that are elsewhere and tries to bring them into the public domain, but this (Calbright) is very innovative, and it’s gonna take a while.”

He balked at critiques from others who say Calbright hasn’t been successful. “It just got there!” the former governor averred. “I didn’t demonstrate success my first few years, either.”

But his vision for the college was always called into question by labor groups, legislative analysts and a cadre of politicians. 

The findings affirm the many criticisms of key lawmakers. “I have never seen so little done with so much,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina at a legislative budget hearing in February. He’s chair of the Assembly’s higher education committee and requested the audit last year.

Last year the Assembly and Senate presented a joint budget to fully defund the college, contravening Gov. Newsom’s May spending proposal to keep Calbright funded with some cuts. Ultimately the college survived, losing $5 million of its $20 million a year in annual funding and $40 million in one-time funds.

Ongoing legislative support for Calbright is minimal, said Assemblymember Kevin McCarty at a February hearing of the budget subcommittee on education that he chairs. Calbright survives because “the governor and the prior governor who, for whatever reasons, have the shiny object in the corner, who think this is going to materialize, but it’s not,” he said then.

But last year’s calamitous financial outlook forced lawmakers and the governor to scrounge the proverbial couch for loose change.  

There’s no sign of belt-tightening this year, a likely saving grace for Calbright. The state is eyeing a budget surplus of $75.7 billion for next year, Gov. Newsom said Monday.

Harsh findings

Management errors at the college’s outset have continued to upend its mission and left its finances opaque, the audit found, echoing previous reporting. For example, Calbright’s first CEO awarded a no-bid executive recruiting contract of $500,000 to a political insider that rankled many. 

Tuesday’s audit said some of the initial hires demonstrated “explicit evidence of favoritism” and that the executive team was overpaid while employing key staff members with no public education experience.  That first CEO, Heather Hiles, ultimately left the position abruptly after less than a year. 

The audit faulted Calbright on a variety of fronts, including: 

  • Having no detailed plan to spend the $240 million it was initially promised
  • Teaching cybersecurity as one if its five programs, a field that typically requires a bachelor’s degree, when Calbright’s target audience has no college background
  • Not having met with industry groups to help design its curriculum
  • Poor student recruitment efforts

Even the statewide board overseeing Calbright and the other 115 community colleges got dinged for being “too deferential” to its leaders. 

At its best, the college is an alternative to costly for-profit colleges that saddle students with debt but rarely lead to strong employment outcomes. It differs from other California community colleges by allowing students to complete their studies at their own pace rather than being tied to a fixed academic calendar.

Patience is afforded to other public institutions in California, said Su Jin Gatlin Jez, executive director of the nonprofit California Competes, which supports Calbright. Until recently California State University struggled with low graduation rates but the answer wasn’t to say “no more funding, we’re shutting you down in two years,” Jez said before the audit was released. Instead the state poured hundreds of millions of dollars into improving graduation rates at the CSU.

Echoing Gov. Brown and other backers, Haynes said the college is owed more time to prove itself to lawmakers, who gave the college a seven-year implementation window. “We’re two years into a seven-year trajectory,” Haynes said. 

And the college is on pace to meet key requirements ahead of schedule, like earning accreditation, she added. “It was a terrible fit and start at the beginning, but I think we found our legs.” 

One of the audit’s lone pieces of positive news for Calbright is that its competency-based approach means its courses don’t duplicate offerings of other colleges. Critics maintain that Calbright was redundant, providing content online that can be found at other community colleges.

A student says “they have improved”

At least one Calbright student agrees things are looking up at the college. Last year CalMatters spoke to Charles Smith, a retired federal worker in his 50s, about his first few months at Calbright. “I do get the feeling they’re not ready for us,” he said then.

More than a year later, the opposite is now true, Smith told CalMatters recently. “I think they’re ready for the students,” he said. From his vantage point, the change in leadership at Calbright “was all for the better, for sure, so I think they have improved.”

He said he receives a message from an advisor weekly or every other week, far more than before. 

Even troubleshooting technical snags tell Smith the college cares about him.

For two months this year, Smith couldn’t log into his Calbright account that houses his lesson plans. He said some staff turnover led to a bit of a runaround, but eventually someone at Calbright renewed his credentials after they expired a year into his studies. “They never gave up,” Smith said.

He’s 86% of the way toward finishing his studies before he can sit for the test to earn his certificate in IT. Smith’s brother and sister contracted COVID-19, so he halted his studies to support them. His brother has been intubated twice and is recovering in a nursing home after getting sick just after Thanksgiving. Recently five more of his family members tested positive for COVID-19.

“My concentration, my focus, is sort of elsewhere,” Smith said. He plans to resume his studies in June. 

Smith is part of an anticipated wave of nearly 4 million adult students wanting to pursue higher education in California exclusively online, according to the nonprofit California Competes, an arena in which Calbright should theoretically excel.

What comes next for Calbright?

To continue receiving state support, the audit said Calbright should beef up its internal mechanisms for ensuring public dollars are well spent, such as developing a process for accepting and managing contracts and aligning its salaries with other community colleges. The college should also develop a detailed spending plan with dates for when that money will go out. The audit urges the college to improve its student recruitment, better track the engagement of students so that they can graduate and develop a plan to help students land jobs. 

The report advises the Legislature to request another audit report no later than December of next year to determine if Calbright made the necessary changes to warrant survival. Should Calbright shut down, the audit recommends the Legislature to still invest in a program that allows students overlooked by traditional higher education to study at their own pace.  

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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...