A new report from the California State Auditor on Calbright, the California Online Community College, reports that there is no detailed strategy for spending the more than $175 million that it expects to receive in state taxpayer funding, and should be eliminated after graduating only 12 of its 904 students enrolled.
“In its two years of operation, Calbright has failed at its key mission of enrolling adult students who cannot otherwise obtain postsecondary education,” noted State Auditor Elaine M. Howle in the report. “If Calbright doesn’t change by the end of 2022, we recommend that the Legislature eliminate the college as an independent entity and explore other options for providing self-paced educational programs to California adults.”
However that action had already been well underway through AB 1432 -a bill to shut down CalBright gained a large amount of traction this week following the release of the scathing report from the Auditor.
Assembly Bill 1432, co-authored by Assemblymen Evan Low (D-Campbell) and Jose Medina (D-Riverside), would, if passed, make the California Online Community College Act inoperative at the end of 2022–23 academic year, effectively ending Calbright.
The bill, introduced earlier this year, listed several reasons to bring Calbright to an end. AB 1432 notes that despite receiving $60 million dollars in 2019 as initial startup funding when the all-online Calbright became California’s 115th community college and a budget of $15 million a year, the college only enrolled 524 students, issued 35 credentials, and remained unaccredited as a college.
The auditor found that only 6 more certificates had been awarded in between the introduction of AB 1432 in February and the report in May. Although Calbright tried to downplay the low number of certificates being given due to a capped pilot enrollment of 500 people, the audit found that nearly 1,000 people had enrolled in Calbright at one point or another, with many opting to leave, including nearly 400 dropping out and nearly 100 remaining inactive.
The audit traced many of Calbright’s issues to “its former executive team’s poor management” in setting up the college, referring specifically to the first president of Calbright, Heather Hiles, who resigned in January 2020, less than one year into a four-year contract.
Salaries and hiring practices were also named, including Hiles receiving $398,000 a year, nearly $50,000 more a year than the nearest community college salary in California. Most other higher-up positions within Calbright were also found to be the highest amongst all other community colleges in the state.
The lack of a spending plan also led to questionable buying decisions, such as $4 million going to a company to help set up their payroll and accounting departments, but failing to come up with a viable plan.
Students were also found to have greatly suffered in the report, with the State Auditor’s office finding that there was no student support system and no pathway set up for job transition. Many simply gave up on Calbright and either dropped out or transferred to more established community colleges in the state.
The audit also found many faculty-related issues. Of the first 14 faculty hires, 9 were found to have severe issues due to the college not having rigorous hiring processes or were hired because of preferential treatment. Many were cronyism hires, where faculty members were brought on primarily because they knew members of the executive team through personal or professional connections. The audit did note, however, that most of this staff left last year following Hiles’ resignation.
AB 1432 also addresses that the California community college system has continued to be underfunded despite serving over 2 million students, positing that funds from Calbright should go to similar courses at community colleges. All state community colleges switching over to online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic also showed that Calbright’s advantage of being an all-online college was no longer relevant once all other colleges switched to that model, especially with many planning to offer a wider array of online classes even after in-class courses resume.
“The Legislature must end the Calbright College experiment”
The bill passed unanimously through Assembly committees last month, and on May 6th unanimously passed the entire Assembly. While many Senators previously said that they might hold out and try to save Calbright, the mix of bipartisan support for shutting the college down and the State Auditor’s report is quickly changing their minds.
“There were a few Senators hoping that maybe they could turn the ship around,” said “Dana,” a state capitol staffer, to the Globe Thursday. “But that report on Tuesday really just ended all hope for that. Make all the politician jokes you want, but everyone who read that report, or at least saw the bullet points, were really upset to learn that Calbright leaders were just hiring their friends. They know leadership has been replaced, but the low volume of students for the sky-high costs is not exactly winning those people back either. Plus, virtually every member here has at least one state community college in their district. They’d all like to see more money going to them rather than one giant decentralized one that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anymore with so many of the colleges now offering more online classes.”
The authors of AB 1432, who wrote the bill due to Calbright’s numerous issues, and because of the resources taken away from other community colleges, reiterated their reasons to “end the Calbright College experiment” this week.
The State Auditor’s findings have only furthered my resolve that the Legislature must end the Calbright College experiment. That is why I am co-authoring #AB1432, which eliminates Calbright College. https://t.co/h3iU1dgW3D
— Jose Medina (@AsmJoseMedina) May 12, 2021
“Although I believe that the original intent and mission of Calbright is noble, it has struggled with numerous issues since its inception that we can no longer ignore,” explained Assemblyman Medina. “The other California community colleges have demonstrated their ability to adapt, expand and serve their 2.1 million students even in a pandemic. Having graduated so few students while taking away resources from other programs in the California Community Colleges is simply not helping our students.”
No opposition has been registered on AB 1432 as of Thursday. The bill is expected to be passed in the Senate in the coming months.