Calbright given ultimatum: Improve or be closed after 2022

State audit shows critical failures of the online college to deliver on its mission to serve adult students and provide essential pathways to careers.
By: | May 13, 2021

Calbright College, the fully online institution that was set up to serve thousands of adult students in California, has been failing and is in danger of being shut down, according to a new audit released this week.

The report notes that Calbright has been beset by poor hiring practices, woeful budgeting, and a lack of student participation, support and workforce partnerships. But most critically, it has not delivered the expected education outcomes for its learners who are predominantly ages 24-35. Of the 904 individuals who have enrolled in the program since October 2019, 387 have dropped out, 87 haven’t been active for 90 days and only 12 have graduated.

The audit comes on the heels of the California State Assembly’s unanimous vote two weeks ago to defund Calbright, along with calls from groups such as the California Federation of Teachers who are pressing to end it. Nearly $100 million (and $20 million annually) was initially allocated to fund Calbright, but that was trimmed to $60 million (and $15 million each year) by state legislators.

“The State Auditor’s report clearly shows that it is time to shut down the failed experiment of Calbright College,” California Federation of Teachers president Jeff Freitas said in a statement. “Everything that Calbright claims to provide for students is already being done at our established community colleges, with lower costs and far better results. Instead of continuing to waste scarce public resources on the failed Calbright College, those resources should immediately be used to invest in our established community colleges.”

For now, with new leadership in place at Calbright, the audit recommended a long list of items that must be remedied to salvage the program. If not, Calbright likely will be disbanded and the state will have to seek other “self-paced” options or simply divest those monies to the state’s community college system, which is comprised of more than two million students. Calbright has until December 2022 to make that turnaround happen.

“If it succeeds in recovering from these missteps, Calbright could fulfill its purpose and help address barriers that many Californians face to complete a postsecondary education to improve their economic mobility,” California State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote. “Calbright’s new leadership has taken some initial steps to address the deficiencies we observed.”

Can it survive?

But Calbright’s road to respectability will be long. There are more than two million potential students who are not being served by the online college that could be, according to several reports including one completed recently by California Competes. Its history also has not been favorable. The Auditor was highly critical of the past executive team for its lack of planning, its odd choices in terms of academic programming that don’t fit student needs, its overspend on administrators and its favoritism in hiring practices in putting together its staff.

Even with a changeover in the executive team and slight improvements recently, the report notes that significant results have not been made.

“Calbright has yet to develop a clear and robust strategy for how it will accomplish its mission,” the audit said. “It has not set adequate goals for what it hopes to accomplish, determined the steps necessary to achieve those goals, or established a timeline for when it will accomplish them.”

By November of this year, Calbright will be expected to deliver on that list of goals, according to the audit, including:

  • “Finalizing a plan that sets goals for student success and a timeline to complete them.
  • Developing educational programs that can benefit its target student population, enrolling its target student population and ensuring students receive the support they need to graduate.
  • Working with employers to ensure students are prepared for and can secure jobs after completing certification through one of its programs.
  • Incorporating a spending plan that details how and when it expects to spend the funds the Legislature allocates.
  • Establishing a pay schedule for all employees … and compensation packages that are comparable to those for similar positions within the community college system.”

The Legislature is expecting to see significant progress made by July 2022. Calbright Board of Trustees President Pamela Haynes and President and CEO Ajita Talwalker Menon wrote in their response that they would make every effort to meet the requirements.

“Calbright appreciates the State Auditor’s recognition of the progress that Calbright has made in many key areas under the current leadership team,” they wrote. “As a forward-looking organization, we agree that we need to make continued progress in the areas of improvement that the State Auditor has identified in the report, and we are fully committed to implementing the recommendations.”