California’s new online community college to open after months of planning

Derek Gordon/CalbrightCalbright College president Heather Hiles unveils the school’s new logo. The target audience is adults seeking to improve job skills. Derek Gordon/CalbrightCalbright College president Heather Hiles unveils the school’s new logo. The target audience is adults seeking to improve job skills. California’s newest two-year institution — the online-only Calbright College — opens on Tuesday and for the first time, and students will be able to register and enroll in programs that are intended to serve an entirely new adult and underemployed population.
The new college was created to enroll so-called “stranded” Californians who are underemployed, working multiple part-time jobs or stuck in jobs that don’t pay living wages. The California Community Colleges system estimates about 8 million adults, between 25 and 34, fall into this category.
Expectations are high for the new college. But Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the state’s 115 community colleges, said the institution should be given ample time to get underway and to fully understand the students it will serve.
Registration to attend the new college opens Tuesday. More than 1,200 people have filled out a form on the Calbright College website expressing interest in enrolling in one of three of its initial programs, as of Sept. 27, said Taylor Huckaby, the college’s communications director. “Approximately 65 new interested applicants are signing up each day as we ramp up our marketing and outreach efforts,” he said. Many of those people may choose to register for the college’s programs by visiting
Calbright will only send invitations to approximately the first 400 applicants to participate in the first classes, Huckaby said. As with the rest of the community college system, there are no minimum academic requirements needed to register or enroll in Calbright. The college will be free for any student.
“Once we hit 400, we will stop enrollment,” Huckaby said. “We suggest applying on October 1.”
Community college officials have stated that the college will be unique in how the online, public institution will serve non-traditional and adult students. These students can earn industry-based certifications that will help them advance in their careers.
“We wouldn’t measure any startup the way we’re measuring Calbright,” Oakley said, in an interview earlier this month. “There is a tremendous amount of pressure on what it should look like come October.”
And Oakley cautions that the new college is still in its infancy. Building the college’s infrastructure began earlier this year and its president was hired in February. It’s only been formally in existence for about nine months, he said.
“The reality is that they’re going to need at least a year and a half to two years to really figure out what is the best way of supporting these learners, which no institutions, public or private, have really decided to support,” Oakley said. “My expectation is to give Calbright as much running room as possible, but that’s difficult in this environment where we’re getting a lot of pressure from at least one faculty organization.”
He was referring to the California Federation of Teachers, the union representing 30,000 community college employees, including many faculty members. The union has been opposed to the controversial online college since former Gov. Jerry Brown first proposed it. It claims the college is violating the state’s education law by duplicating programs offered at other local community colleges.
But Oakley said it was equally important to note that not all faculty organizations or unions are opposed to Calbright.
After registering, students will be contacted by a counselor who will build an education plan with them. Then they would enroll in the first course, Huckaby said.
The college is offering three online programs, which will lead to industry certifications in cybersecurity, information technology and medical coding. Students would get credit for the skills they’ve previously acquired in the workplace.
Students would have to show they’ve mastered a particular set of skills or competency rather than complete a certain number of hours or achieve a grade to complete the courses, which is known as competency-based education.
“There is so much opportunity for Calbright to test different learning modalities within the competency-based learning environment but also recognizing that right now Calbright only has about 16 employees,” Oakley said. “We really have put a very unrealistic timeline on their backs.”
New students would first take a skills assessment and then enroll in a “College and Career Essentials” course that prepares them for academic and professional working environments.
Following the Essentials program, learners will enroll at their own pace in one of the three program pathways. All programs are self-paced, allowing for progression through instruction on each student’s own schedule. The program could take as little as 10 weeks but college officials will study the amount of time students spend on the programs, Huckaby said. Calbright’s website says all the programs are designed to be completed in under one year.
The goal is ultimately for Calbright officials to understand and meet student needs through every step of the experience, he said.
Calbright has so far hired six part-time faculty contractors and directors for each of the three programs. The college will also be hiring full-time faculty in upcoming weeks, Huckaby said.
But questions remain about how the new college will work.
Calbright officials say they will partner with employers to host the three programs allowing students to move up the career ladder potentially within those companies or into better-paying jobs and industries. So far, no partnerships with companies or employers have been announced.
Calbright officials, Huckaby said, have been in talks with labor organizations such as the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, to market Calbright to its 700,000 members belonging to several local unions in California. Huckaby said the college continues to develop relationships with a range of companies and organizations but isn’t prepared to formally announce any agreements or partnerships.
Meanwhile, leaders of the California Federation of Teachers, which sent a letter last month to he community college’s board of trustees threatening a lawsuit against the system, say nothing has changed.
“Nothing has improved as far as we can tell,” said Jim Mahler, president of the Community College Council of the CFT, in an email. “In fact, our concerns have grown.”
Mahler said the union believes that there may be more violations of state law by Calbright than the ones they initially listed two months ago. Mahler said the union is still gathering information and didn’t want to disclose any of the other violations they say they have found.
Oakley gave credit to SEIU for helping the new college understand some of the needs of the most vulnerable workers.
He conceded that the lead-up to opening the new college hasn’t been perfect.
“They have certainly made a few mistakes which is understandable for any startup,” he said. Community college officials said he was referring to Calbright President Heather Hiles’ push to grant a no-bid contract of up to $500,0000 to an executive recruiter who is a friend of hers.
Oakley said he expects Calbright to examine closely the experience of this first group of students.   “These adult learners are in the most vulnerable industries and many of whom have nothing more than a high school diploma,” he said. “Can we create a platform that really is robust enough and supportive enough to help them upscale before they either lose their job or continue to be underemployed?”
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