Calbright College Premortem, Part 1: Both sides dig in

Last week the State of California released its audit on Calbright College, the new online community college created by former governor Jerry Brown. While finding that the “potential value to the State is significant”, meaning that the concept is important to provide “self-paced educational opportunities to California adults who face barriers to attending traditional colleges”, Calbright College itself is a mess and not meeting any of its milestones. Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to find that as of the end of the first year of operation in October 2020, Calbright had only graduated 12 of the 904 enrolled students despite promising “it would place 300 to 400 graduates into paid apprenticeships or jobs in its first year.” The audit concluded that Calbright should shut down if it does not hit new milestones by December 2022. Meanwhile the California Assembly unanimously voted to shut down Calbright by the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year, regardless of any new milestones, sending the bill to the State Senate and its expected passage.

Also last week, Calbright officials essentially agreed with the audit’s findings and welcomed the opportunity to continue making improvements. Just three days after the audit’s release, Governor Gavin Newsom presented the May Revise to the proposed state budget that included the planned $15 million of annual operating funding for Calbright.

What, if anything, actually changed last week, and is Calbright College dead or alive?

The Redux

To keep these questions in context, it is helpful to remember the past. I described a similar political battle just one year ago.

The California legislature – both the Assembly and the Senate – has reached an agreement to defund Calbright College as part of the FY2021 budget cycle, as covered by Ashley Smith at EdSource.

“A Legislative Analyst’s report on the May budget revision estimated that eliminating Calbright would save about $137 million, including $20 million in operating costs for next year and taking back $117 million in unspent funds. The study called for Calbright’s abolishment and noted it, ‘has a very high cost per student, is currently unaccredited and largely duplicates programs at other colleges.'”

The only two groups beyond the college itself that I have heard calling for Calbright to be kept alive are the Community College Chancellor’s Office 1 and the Governor’s Office [emphasis added].

“However, officials from the community college chancellor’s office and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said they stand by the college. Calbright has enrolled 523 people, with 61 of them completing the entry-level course and participating in one of the college’s three programs, as of May 1, according to Calbright’s data.”

As part of the final FY2021 budget, the legislature and governor agreed to reduce Calbright funding but keep it alive. The one-time startup funding was reduced from $100 to $60 million, and the ongoing operational funding was reduced from $20 to $15 million.

At that time you had the state legislature and most academic groups (e.g., faculty senates, unions chancellors) aligned behind the shut down Calbright movement, and the governor’s office, chancellor’s office, and Calbright itself behind the keep it alive movement. Today, you have the same groups on the same sides, but the feelings are more intense.

The Audit

The primary answer to what has changed is that we have had another year of operations and a state audit. I won’t relate a full summary of the audit, given some excellent coverage that is already available.

One of the main themes of the audit and the coverage above is criticism of the original management team, as described by Inside Higher Ed:

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.

The audit included this table on the salary comparisons, which is relevant not just for the comparative spending but also for pointing the finger at past management.

table of Calbright salaries compared to top community college positions

There is plenty more in the audit and the coverage, but overall it was highly critical of Calbright with three exceptions, or mitigating factors.

  • There still is a potential need for self-paced options for working adult students beyond what is offered at traditional colleges.

  • The audit concluded that due to the self-paced nature of the programs, “Calbright’s pathways are not duplicative when compared to the other programs we reviewed.”

  • There is a new management team in place that has made some improvements in Calbright fiscal management and reporting.

The Bill

AB 1432 is the bill advanced by the same legislators that requested the state audit, and it is the one that would shut down Calbright College completely by summer 2023. What is significant is that AB1432 is not part of the state budgeting process, where two previous attempts to cut off Calbright were defeated in final negotiations.

  • When it was originally proposed, the existing college chancellors were strongly opposed and nearly forced the issue until then-governor Brown added $35 million in funding for existing colleges.

  • Last year the legislature voted to shut down the college but backed off in the final budget.

Both times the politics of the budget process overwhelmed those wanting to shut down Calbright. This year it is different, with a separate bill likely headed to the governor for a veto or signature later this summer.

The Budget

On the other side, the governor has a completely different budget situation at his disposal than he did last year. California now has an estimated $75 billion surplus, taking away or minimizing the argument that the State cannot afford to continue funding Calbright. In the May Revise, there are numerous increases in education funding, including $100 million for the zero textbook cost program for OER usage in the community colleges. Money is flowing.

The Governor(s)

Just because Jerry Brown is no longer governor does not mean that he is irrelevant in politics, and he is still lobbying to keep Calbright alive as described by CalMatters.

“Government is not a place normally of innovation,” Brown said in an interview with CalMatters Monday before the audit dropped. “It takes things that are elsewhere and tries to bring them into the public domain, but this (Calbright) is very innovative, and it’s gonna take a while.”

He balked at critiques from others who say Calbright hasn’t been successful. “It just got there!” the former governor averred. “I didn’t demonstrate success my first few years, either.”

But his vision for the college was always called into question by labor groups, legislative analysts and a cadre of politicians.

Gavin Newsom, for his part, is not known for changing positions when there is a political squabble. Go read about why the San Francisco 49ers play in Santa Clara for a reminder on this point.

The Stalemate

This leaves us in somewhat of a stalemate, just with more intense feelings on each side. In my opinion, the audit itself is of little importance other than providing political cover for the legislature as it finalizes AB1432. And I also believe the budget process matters little, as Calbright’s $15 million is in the May Revise and likely will remain in the final budget. The real question of funding will come down to the veto process and AB1432. Will Governor Newsom veto the likely passage of AB1432, and if he does, will the required two-thirds of both the Assembly and Senate vote to override the veto? That is the real game to watch.

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.