California’s First Online Community College Opens Its Virtual Doors to Students

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The logo for Calbright College, California's first fully online community college, which opened to students on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Calbright College)

California's first fully online, free community college opened for business Tuesday, allowing students to apply and register for a range of career pathway programs.

Calbright College, the state's 115th community college, aims to serve what it calls "stranded" California adults who are underemployed, working multiple part-time jobs or stuck in jobs that don’t pay living wages.

The California Community Colleges system estimates that roughly 8 million adults, between 25 and 34, fall into this category. The college is currently offering three online programs, which will lead to industry certifications in cybersecurityinformation technology and medical coding.

Rather than completing a certain number of classroom hours or achieving a specific grade, students will receive credit for the experience they’ve previously acquired in the workplace and will then have to demonstrate competency in a particular set of skills.

"What we're doing is pretty unique, not just in California but the whole country," said Taylor Huckaby, Calbright's communications director.

New students will first take a skills assessment and then enroll in a basic college and career preparation. They can then enroll in one of the three program pathways, all of which are self-paced and designed to be completed in under one year, according to Calbright’s website. The school will then continue to guide students through industry apprenticeships and certification programs, while covering any related fees, Huckaby said.

The ultimate goal is for Calbright officials to understand and meet student needs through every step of the experience, Huckaby said, noting that each student will be connected with a counselor to help "walk them through" the process. Although it's all online, there is a constant human touch guiding folks through these program pathways."

Program pathways will also continually change in response to industry demand, Hucakby added.

"We'll be constantly taking the temperature of the labor market — what jobs need to be filled," he said. "We're focused on getting people jobs, not so much getting degrees."

As with the rest of the state's community college system, there are no minimum academic requirements needed to register or enroll in Calbright, and tuition is entirely free.

The school's registration system came online at 8 a.m. Tuesday, and as of 1 p.m. about 250 students had already signed up, said Huckaby, noting that the initial enrollment window would close after the first 400 applications were received.

Many questions, though, still remain about how the nascent virtual college will operate, particularly in light of the many obstacles it faces.

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Calbright is not accredited, a process that could take years. And the school has so far hired only six part-time faculty contractors and directors for each of its three programs. It has yet to hire any full-time teaching faculty, something it is just now starting to do, said Huckaby.

In March, the school's newly appointed president, Heather Hiles, also drew heat after it surfaced that she had pushed to grant a no-bid contract of up to $500,000 to an executive recruiter friend.

Meanwhile, while Calbright officials say they intend to partner with employers to host the three pathway programs, no such partnerships have been announced yet, although officials say they have been in talks with a number of labor organizations, including the Service Employees International Union.

"The reality is that they’re going to need at least 1½ 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," said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the state’s community college system.

Oakley also noted the pressure the college faces from the California Federation of Teachers, the union representing 30,000 community college employees, which has remained steadfastly opposed to the school since former Gov. Jerry Brown first proposed it years ago.

The CFT claims the college is violating the state’s education law by duplicating programs offered at other local community colleges, and just last month sent a letter to the community college’s board of trustees threatening a lawsuit against the system.

"Nothing has improved as far as we can tell,” said Jim Mahler, president of the Community College Council of the CFT, in an email, noting that there may be even more violations of state law than initially stated. "In fact, our concerns have grown."

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Oakley 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, adding that he expects school officials to closely examine the experience of the first group of students and make the necessary adjustments.

"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?"

Matthew Green of KQED News contributed reporting.

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