Auditor recommends closing Calbright if it doesn’t meet new benchmarks

Dive Brief: 

  • A withering state audit published Tuesday recommended Calbright College close if the tuition-free online school can’t improve a slew of problems by the end of next year. 

  • The auditor found that Calbright, which offers nondegree programs, has inadequate support services, lacks a process for helping students land “well-paying” jobs and has made little progress setting up the fledgling college. 

  • Support from California’s governor narrowly saved Calbright from the chopping block last year, but some influential lawmakers and faculty groups have opposed the college from its inception. 

Dive Insight: 

Former Gov. Jerry Brown championed Calbright into existence in 2018, but the college has struggled to find its footing since it started enrolling students the next year. 

Supporters say Calbright will help state workers find better jobs and serve as an alternative to for-profit schools, while opponents say funding for the institution would be better spent on the state’s existing 115 community colleges. 

The audit underscores Calbright’s potential to help adults who’ve faced barriers in completing traditional higher education. It also noted that Calbright’s programs, which are self-paced, don’t duplicate those following a fixed academic calendar at other community colleges. 

Still, Calbright must resolve a host of issues. That includes problems with the way the college recruits and moves students through its three certificate programs. According to the report, 904 students have enrolled so far, but only 12 have graduated. Nearly half have dropped out, while another 87 have been inactive for at least 90 days. 

Calbright has also hit snags with two of its three programs. Although the college offers a cybersecurity program, most jobs in the field require a bachelor’s degree, according to the report. And its medical coding program was closed to new students as of last summer. 

The auditor blames the college’s former executive team for its slow start, and cited concerns about its hiring processes. The report says team members didn’t create a “detailed strategy” for how they would spend the college’s $175 million budget and didn’t always have clear due dates for major objectives. 

Heather Hiles resigned as Calbright’s first CEO in January 2020, and most other executives left later that year, the report notes. New management has made improvements but does not have a “clear and robust strategy” for fulfilling its mission. 

The auditor issued several recommendations for Calbright. Among them, the school should develop strategies by November to create educational programs that will benefit its target student population, enroll more learners, ensure they have the right support services and work with employers so they can land jobs after completion. 

If the college doesn’t improve, the audit recommends Calbright be eliminated as an “independent community college district.” If that happens, lawmakers should explore other ways to offer self-paced education to California residents, it says. 

In an emailed statement, Calbright Board President Pamela Haynes said the college appreciated the recommendations and is “fully committed” to carry them out according to the auditor’s timeline. “[W]e acknowledge that Calbright made early missteps, and that necessary changes have been made to course-correct and implement rigorous internal controls where needed,” Haynes wrote.

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