Popular College Choice for Black Students Survives Lawmaker’s Shutdown Attempt

By Joe W. Bowers Jr., California Black Media

When the California Legislature passed the state’s 2021-2022 budget last month, lawmakers voted to defund Calbright College, the only statewide completely digital community college.

However, after negotiations with Gov. Gavin Newsom, the college’s funding has been reinstated.

But Senate Bill 129, the budget trailer bill Newsom signed on July 12, contains language saying that any legislation passed that eliminates the college would be binding.

Calbright College is California’s 115th community college and it is currently tuition free.

The idea for a community college offering only online programs statewide was the brainchild of former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. He believed increasing online course availability would make college more accessible and affordable for working adults. He envisioned it as another public option for Californians between ages 25 and 34 that would help them improve their work skills and allow them to earn certifications to move into better-paying jobs not requiring a college degree.

African American students are overrepresented in Calbright’s student body. About 23% of its students are Black. At traditional community colleges in the state, African Americans represent just 5.9% of students. Black students are also overrepresented in the state’s for-profit institutions, where they are 18% of students. These institutions can cost up to nine times more per unit than a community college. Students incur higher debt and student loan default rates are higher. Course completion rates for students across these institutions are some of the lowest.

When the Legislature passed the California Online Community College Act in 2018, Calbright was given seven years — from July 2018 through June 2025 — to build a portfolio of programs and support infrastructure for adult students seeking to improve their job and financial status. The Act appropriated $100 million in state funds for startup costs, and initially about $20 million annually was allocated for operating expenses.

Currently, Calbright offers four programs at no cost to California residents – Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Platform Administration (Sales force Administrator), Information Technology Support (A+), Cyber security (Security+), and Medical Coding for Professional Services. These are competency-based education programs that are self-paced and not constrained by academic calendars like traditional community colleges. Upon completion, students can take an industry recognized exam for a Certificate of Competency that would qualify them for jobs in their field of study.

To Calbright’s supporters, including Brown, Newsom, California Community Colleges (CCC) Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley and the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, the college has the potential to become the public solution to costly predatory for-profit institutions that target adults and low-income workers and saddles them with excessive student loan debt

Since its inception, Calbright has had distracters. Much of its opposition comes from the community college faculty union. Critics, including many Legislators argue that Calbright programs are duplicative of those offered at traditional community colleges and that the millions of dollars allocated to it would be better used by the state’s underfunded community colleges.

Although Calbright began offering programs in October 2019, by February 2020 its critics requested a legislative audit to assess its progress toward creating online programs, enrolling students, building relationships with employers and collaborating with other community colleges.

The results of the audit, which cost the state over $300,000, were published in May 2021. In the letter accompanying the Calbright audit report, California State Auditor Elaine Howle revealed “It is behind in accomplishing key milestones and must act quickly to demonstrate its ability to achieve its mission.”

She explained, “A primary reason why Calbright’s progress is not on track is that its former executive team failed to develop and execute effective strategies for launching the college.”

Howle also said many Calbright executives left during its first year due to leadership failures.

“Calbright has struggled to adequately enroll the students it was intended to serve, took longer than it should have to develop a student support system, and did not adequately partner with employers in the development of its educational programs,” she added.

But, the audit also pointed out that Calbright’s new leadership has initiated actions to address the deficiencies that were uncovered.

Currently, Calbright offers African American students a tuition free alternative for gaining new job skills certificates. Unlike students taking courses at for-profit colleges, Calbright students who are unsuccessful in gaining sought-after credentials are not severely financially penalized.

Calbright’s critics have pushed back on Howle’s assessment that “Calbright’s potential value to the State is significant.” They also have failed to acknowledge that their most repeated complaint against the college is disputed in the audit’s finding that “Calbright’s pathways are not duplicative when compared to the other programs we reviewed.”

In February 2021, before the legislative audit report was released, Assembly Bill 1432, an act to make Calbright inoperative at the end of the 2022-23 academic year, was introduced by Assembly Member Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley) and coauthored by Assembly Member Jose Medina (D-Riverside).

On May 6, before the audit report was published, the Assembly passed AB 1432 by unanimous vote (71-0). The bill was sent to the Senate for approval, but the Senate Education Committee decided not to hear it at its July 14 meeting. That killed any chance for the bill to be enacted this year. No comment was provided by Committee Chair Senator Connie M. Leyva (D – Chino) when California Black Media reached out to find out why the bill was not heard.

According to the budget deal that Newsom accepted, if AB 1432 had been approved by the Senate, Calbright would be closed.

Although, Calbright survived this year’s Legislative attempt to close it, those who oppose it have not given up. They emphasize that Calbright leaders must deliver on its mission on the timetable provided in the audit report and meet the milestones the Legislature established when the college was created.

“We need to see substantial progress for Calbright to earn our trust and show that this has not been a wasteful experiment coming at California taxpayers’ expense,” Low says.