On Sunday I argued that Calbright College, California’s fully online community college, has already failed.
But in the end, I consider Calbright College to be a dead man walking. Political and budget battles may continue, but Calbright has already failed and shows no signs of turning around. Just 1 – 4% of students complete a certificate for several reasons, and those reasons leads back to the initial assumptions behind the college and the assumptions held by the current management team. That will be the subject for the next post.
The overall theme of the state audit released last week was one of negligent management by the first executive team, as described by Inside Higher Ed.
The report accuses Calbright’s former leadership of laying the groundwork for a host of problems: inflated salaries, unethical hiring practices, too few supports for students. The report also flagged a lack of strategic planning by current leaders for approximately $175 million in state funding the college is slated to receive through June 2025.
“Because of these missteps, 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, thereby hindering its ability to assist its students in obtaining jobs,” Elaine Howle, the California state auditor, said in her report.
The audit examines Calbright’s progress through October 2020 and ultimately lays blame on the college’s former executive team for early and rampant mismanagement. According to the report, nine out of the 14 hiring decisions at the college in 2019 lacked a sufficiently competitive and transparent search process or involved favoritism. Five of the “inappropriately hired” employees remain in their positions, while four left. Administrators received outsize salaries compared to other community college leaders, with the CEO making $398,000, which is $138,000 more than the median salary for the position at other community colleges in the state.
Calbright also neglected to develop a specific spending plan, despite receiving millions of dollars from the state, and it opened enrollment without a robust plan for student supports, according to the audit. The report also notes that the college paid the Foundation for California Community Colleges $4 million to help set up services, including payroll and accounting, but two years later, the foundation is still running key administrative functions.
Later in that same story, we see that the audit acknowledge the improvements in management at Calbright.
The college underwent an abrupt leadership shift not long after its launch. Calbright’s first president, Heather Hiles, resigned in January 2020, and the majority of the executive team left soon after. The college hired a new president in July 2020, [president and CEO of Calbright Talwalker] Menon, who served in the Obama administration as special assistant to the president for higher education policy at the White House Domestic Policy Council.
The audit acknowledged that the leadership change has led to improvements at Calbright, such as reforms to the hiring process, but said the college “has yet to develop a clear and robust strategy for how it will accomplish its mission.”
I have independently seen the improvements in management, with greater transparency in Calbright’s reporting of results, and further development of an actual roadmap for the college. Students report that Calbright advisors are now proactively contacting them. I do not believe, however, that improved management of the same underlying assumptions is enough, and that Calbright has been built on fatal flaws.
Misunderstanding CBE and the role of Prior Learning
Last summer I wrote a post describing my experience as a Calbright student.
That description above highlights an aspect of the Calbright story that has not received much attention, although it is quite relevant. Fewer than 12% of students who are enrolled make it through the entry-level Essentials course.
There’s a reason why this success rate is so low – the course is poorly-designed and one of the most demotivating examples I have seen in higher education. I am one of those unsuccessful students.
Note that the 12% number was for students to make it through even one course in the program – the college essentials. Overall rates reported by the auditor (and updated through this spring by Calbright officials) indicate a program success rate of just 1 – 4%.
One of the arguments in my post was that Calbright was missing much of the point of competency based education (CBE).
Despite all of this forced usage of the various CBE terminology, the course itself does not follow competency principles. The core idea behind CBE and its application to workforce development is that learners should focus on what they need to learn, with the ability to test out or demonstrate competencies in areas where they already have the skills. Prior Learning Assessments. But in the Calbright Essentials course, almost all objectives are locked, only to be released if prior objectives have been met. And learners are blocked from even taking the assessments until they click through the learning activities themselves. This appears to be a course design problem rather than a learning platform limitation, for what it’s worth.
In the state audit, this subject was called out.
Best practices state that to assist adult students in completing their education, colleges should give them academic credit for previous learning or experience relevant to the program in which they are enrolled. Providing credit for this learning or experience is referred to as credit for prior learning and generally involves a college conducting an assessment of each student’s existing knowledge and skills. Students may earn such credit for knowledge and skills attained outside of college through, for example, prior apprenticeships, military service, or relevant professional experience. According to the American Council on Education, credit for prior learning is an important means of facilitating increased education, especially for adult learners coming from the workplace or military. In 2019 the Success Center for California Community Colleges reported that students who earn credit for prior learning are more likely to finish their programs. 5 State regulations require each community college district to adopt policies related to recognition of prior learning, and the state law establishing Calbright specifically required it to establish a process for recognition of prior learning by July 2019. Although Calbright does not yet offer formal academic credit, the principles of credit for prior learning can still apply in its present operations. For example, it could still assess students’ prior experiences to determine whether they need to complete all of the coursework in a given program or if the students’ prior experience demonstrates competency in certain areas.
Nonetheless, Calbright has not established such a process.
In its official response to the audit, Calbright officials argued that they have plans.
Competency-based education by design allows students to apply previous knowledge to accelerate their learning and progress more quickly through the course content. For example, our new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform administrator program incorporates in-tool opportunities to demonstrate mastery of skills to be able to progress more quickly through the pathway’s coursework. Calbright is also ahead of schedule to achieve accreditation, as specified in statute, which is necessary to award credit for prior learning and at which point Calbright intends to do so. Calbright is fully committed to implementing this recommendation according to the State Auditor’s timeline.
Whereupon the auditor called out that this is an incorrect assumption by Calbright.
Calbright incorrectly asserts that until it is accredited it is incapable of helping students move more quickly through its programs by recognizing their previous training and experience. As we note in Chapter 2, regardless of whether Calbright offers formal academic credit, it can still assess students’ prior experiences and allow them to skip coursework related to areas in which those students have already demonstrated competency. Until Calbright does so, its students may continue to face unnecessary barriers to obtaining a postsecondary education.
The misunderstanding of prior learning credits is not a nuanced issue; rather, it is core to the concept of CBE. But more importantly, it is core to the issue of helping working adults get valuable academic credits in a timely manner. Calbright continues to place barriers in front of students.
Misunderstanding of Competition
During the March meeting with the Board of Trustees, Calbright CEO Menon presented an updated roadmap for the college. In this presentation Menon repeatedly described Calbright as the alternative to for-profit institutions.
10:20 As we know too well, the population of working learners that Calbright was created to serve has historically been targeted and recruited and left behind by predatory for-profit colleges, especially in these times of economic uncertainty. Addressing this, as many of you know, was a key focus of my work in the Obama White House. And what was telling from that time, and is bearing out now, is that the research shows us that students who attended a for-profit after losing their job during the last recession are actually on average financially worse off than they would have been if they had never attended college at all. A decade from now we really don’t want to be facing the same reality, we know that our mission has only grown more urgent, and the impacts of the pandemic and economic upheaval are bearing down on these Californians.
16:15 We stand poised to be the equitable option for working adults across the street, the public, the student focused, the alternative to for-profit colleges, as we do our part to build a stronger and more inclusive California.
This repeated positioning of Calbright as the noble, public alternative to for-profits reveals the assumption about fighting a battle from a decade ago. While the for-profit sector has seen a 5% bump in enrollment during the pandemic, it is a shadow of its former self, and the competitive landscape has changed since the time of the Obama administration. Note the largest fully-online (exclusive distance education in IPEDS terms) US institutions since 2012. The for-profit institutions are not the ones growing the most; rather, it is Western Governors University (WGU) and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). While Grand Canyon University and a few others are growing, for-profit enrollment is dropping.
Also note that the big bugbear, the University of Phoenix, was already in massive decline before 2012.
More important than WGU and SNHU, however, is the competiton of nonconsumption. Calbright was intended to be, and should be, targeted at potential students who otherwise would choose to not re-enter college and get a certificate or degree. When viewing nonconsumption as the competition, it becomes clear that any solution must go out of its way to be easy, and to minimize barriers, and to fit into potential students’ lives.
If you view for-profits as your competition, it is all too easy to view your solution as primarily needing to be non-predatory. But to compete in today’s environment, that is not enough.
Later in the same March presentation, Menon presented the current assumptions around Calbright’s growth prospects. The assumptions are that Calbright will go from 500 to 5000 learners from the end of 2020 to the end of 2023, and it will go from 12-24 program completions to 1200 in that same timeframe.
Menon then compared Calbright’s growth trajectory to WGU [emphasis added].
32:43 With regard to enrollment, again I want to remind folks, this is an ambitious goal to be serving 5000 students. And to get to this number, we looked at 30 different entities who had CBE programs and ended up anchoring the enrollment growth piece to Western Governors University, which, while not a perfect comparison, had by far the most comparable growth trajectory because it is similarly an institution that had to had to start on scratch, to be competency based education, to be online, to be focused on adults. Others that we looked at had added CBE programs as a small percentage of their programs or went online well after they were established.
To their credit, several members of the board of trustees asked about these rosy projections. Menon replied in general that Calbright’s enrollment growth will be driven by program growth and the power of data.
47:25 To answer your question about going from 500 to 5000, It is absolutely ambitious, and it is achievable, and we believe it’s achievable, because it does have a direct connection to how we grow our programs. What we’re doing with this first program, for example, is to to quickly pilot a program that can grow, start small with 50 – 100 students and then grows substantially once we have figured out exactly how to do the necessary refinements. And those aren’t things that take years for us to do, those are things that take months for us to do, and that we do real time, and the way that we collect, analyze, and make adjustments based on our data, and that’s what we are starting to get very good at.
To grow enrollments by 10x, completions by 50 – 100x, and completion rates by 10x seems ambitious and unrealistic, with no believable explanation.
To anchor enrollment growth prospects from 2019 – 2023 to WGU’s experience from 1997 – 2004 displays a misunderstanding of the market. Those two eras are not comparable. In the late 1990s, WGU was establishing a new model (online CBE) whereas Calbright is entering a crowded field with hundreds of institutions. And with WGU and SNHU both with a fully-established massive national presence.
Better Management of Flawed Assumptions
Where this leaves Calbright is a college that undeniably has better management now that in 2019. But it is one that is based on flawed assumptions about prior learning and the concept of CBE, about decade-old misunderstandings of the competitive environment, and two decade-old misunderstandings about enrollment growth trajectories. The State of California may or may not choose to continue funding the college to the tune of $15 million per year, but in terms of achieving its original goals and in terms of having a meaningful impact on targeted student groups, Calbright is a dead man walking. I would love to be proven wrong here (and will write the mother of all mea culpa posts if this happens), but I see no signs that Calbright can or will succeed.
Keeping your eyes on “the prize” is a bad strategy when the prize is wrong. Their job was not to compete with for-profits: it was to help non-traditional students to get a college education. Their path doesn’t appear to have been focused on this as “the prize”.
As usual, great article!
Phil, I wonder if there are larger lessons in which investments in online education have failed vs. succeeded?
I am thinking of high-profile cases of optimism about online education, followed by shutdown — Columbia’s Fathom in the 1990s, or UT’s Institute for Transformational Learning last decade. Contrast these with successes like Penn State’s Global Campus or Maryland’s later version of the same name, Central Florida, ASU, etc. (There are a few schools where distance education was their bread and butter before the internet, like Embry Riddle, but that does not seem to me to be a common category.)
One possibility is that schools that have successfully implemented online education have generally been cash constrained and modest in their educational goals — “It’s a new school, but it’s online” — while well-funded and large-scale attempts at all-at-once transformation have tended not to do well. (SNHU vs. CalBright.)
Another possibility, as always, is that the pattern is too noisy to draw out conclusions like that. I wonder if you think there are larger patterns in the data, or of Calbright is too much of a one-off to fit into a larger story?
Clay, that’s a good question. But rather than share thoughts off the top of my head, it would be better if I do some research along with some links / backup docs. We’ll treat this as a blog post request to put in the queue 🙂
OK, OK, I can’t help myself. I’m guessing hubris will be a key factor in the defunct or dying online initiatives. In particular, the tendency to not listen to others or to cherry-pick comparison schools that are not similar in context. But I will do some research.