Impact or Headlines: In EdTech they’re not always aligned

One of the downsides of my model of blogging is that in order to minimize conflicts of interest I tend to write about consulting clients less often than I would if I had no formal relationship. This means, for example, that I have not been able to write much about the California Community College System, given the ongoing consulting relationship between MindWires and the California Virtual Campus – Online Education Initiative (CVC-OEI). With the recent state senate hearing on Calbright College, however, I have an opportunity to jump in, thanks to public documents available online.


Calbright College is the newest and increasingly well-known California Community College – the 115th CCC and the first to be fully online – that was funded with $100 million of startup money two years ago along with $20 million per year of ongoing funds. Recently the CEO, Heather Hiles, was forced to resign, and the state senate held a hearing in mid February to evaluate the situation.

Calbright is following a competency-based education (CBE) program that is not credit-bearing, and the college is not planned to be accredited until at least Year 3. The hearing’s background paper describes enrollment on page 5 [emphasis added]:

From October 1 through December 31, 2019, 2,625 students started their applications, 1,412 completed applications, 651 completed orientation, 465 completed their education plan, 449 enrolled in essentials courses, and 20 enrolled in a program pathway. Approximately 40 percent of students selected the IT support program, 20 percent selected the cyber security program, and 40 percent selected the medical coding program.

Rather than focusing on the challenges that Calbright faces, it is worth focusing on another initiative discussed at the hearing that is not having similar problems.

Improving Online CTE Pathways Grant

As part of the process to get funding for Calbright College in 2018, Governor Jerry Brown added $35 million of augmented funds to be distributed to the existing community colleges for them to enhance their online Career and Technical Education (CTE) offerings. The argument had been from many college presidents and faculty groups that the existing colleges already were working on similar problems as is Calbright – trying to help stop-out students come back and get a job-ready college credential. This one-time funding is being managed and distributed by CVC-OEI (p. 16 of background paper).

Difference in Impact

What is remarkable is the difference in the scale of impact between the two different approaches. Calbright as a new college, and CVC-OEI funding to assist and coordinate work by existing colleges. One of the handouts at the hearing summarized the current status of the augmentation program (known as CVC-OEI Improving Online CTE Pathways Grants). At the end of the one-year one-time grant program [emphasis in original]:

The grant period concludes in June 2020 and the colleges will have:

792 online courses (either newly developed or converted to online)

216 new short-term online CTE programs and pathways

191 improved short-term online CTE programs and pathways

 99,000 students will take advantage of new online pathways in the 2020-21 academic year 

We’re talking the difference between potentially hundreds of students in non-degree pathways vs. tens of thousands in pathways that can include degrees. And those CVC-OEI Pathway grants went to 70 colleges that will be serving 99,000+ students with rubric-revised or new courses, leveraging the professional development work shared across the system to improve course designs.

Unfair Comparison

Of course this comparison is not fair. The CVC-OEI grant program – started in July 2019 – takes advantage of 70 existing colleges, many of whom already had a head start on online programs leading to workforce-ready credentials. And the grant program takes advantage of existing infrastructure at the schools. Meanwhile Calbright has to create a college from the ground up and has yet to hire full-time faculty and all operational staff.

But that is precisely the point.

I wrote about the challenges that Calbright College would face when the initiative was announced in 2017 [emphasis added].

What this points to is that for a new fully-online institution to get to some meaningful level of enrollment (let’s say 20,000) in the same ballpark as these comparison schools, I estimate it would take a full decade at the least. This is the reason, by the way, that Mitch Daniels and Purdue University made the Kaplan University deal even though Kaplan’s enrollments are dropping. Daniels did not want to wait a decade to get to meaningful enrollment numbers for an online college serving working adults – if everything works out, within a year Purdue will have a fully-online institution serving 30,000+ working adults. That is a big if, by the way.

For a third of the Calbright start-up costs, CVC-OEI is able to help 70 colleges increase short-term capacity to revise or build online CTE courses, certificates and programs. Those short-term efforts will have long-term benefits, starting with creating 99,000+ potential seats in AY 2020-21 and continuing with the colleges’ commitments to institutionalizing these grant-funded online CTE opportunities for at least three years.

Impact and Headlines

This is a reminder that sometimes we get big headlines with new Silicon Valley style initiatives, but often the bigger impact comes from working with and helping to improve existing institutions. We need both types of initiatives in higher education, and we are fortunate in California to be dealing with funding for both Calbright College and the CVC-OEI grant program. It is refreshing to see some of the lesser-known but higher-impact programs getting public recognition.