December 6, 2023

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Enrollment at Calbright College in California topped 2,000 students in March, nearly double what it was a year ago — a major milestone for the institution that state lawmakers were trying to close as recently as last year.

Calbright, which awards certificates rather than degrees, attributes its consistent enrollment growth to its emphasis on student-centered design, says Mackenzie Smith, the college’s director of communications.

The college has seen strong gains since July 2021, when it had fewer than 500 students, according to Calbright. Its student population reached 1,000 before slowing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, from March to May 2022. But as of July 2022, Calbright has added just over a hundred students a month.

Institution online only suggested several strategies to make it easier for prospective students to enroll and access services. It redid his websites and started information sessions for prospective students, with about a third of those attending eventually deciding to enroll, according to Smith.

Calbright, a public community college that is free to California residents, opened in 2019. It was created to promote economic mobility in the state and help working adults earn credentials that increase their earning potential.

Almost all Calbright students, 92%, are 25 or older, with a median age in the late 30s, according to the college. And 1 in 3 students are caregivers, which is a demographic faces increased obstacles to fill in login information.

Calbright awarded 110 certificates in 2022, compared with 43 in 2021, the college said. On average, students graduate in less than a year, though that varies by program, Smith said.

Previous administrative obstacles

The enrollment and degree milestones are good news for Calbright, which has struggled with administrative issues since its launch.

President and CEO of Calbright resigned in early 2020and the college avoided challenges from state lawmakers pay it off later that year and in 2022. State audit in 2021 recommended closing the institution if it did not improve in metrics such as student support services.

But Calbright’s latest improvements have failed to excite the California Federation of Teachers, according to its president, Jeff Freitas. The union represents more than 120,000 education employees in the state, including 30,000 who work at community colleges.

“We are not impressed by the numbers based on the extraordinary amount of money and resources that have been wasted on Calbright,” Freitas said. “We continue to believe that Calbright is a waste of critical funding that belongs to our traditional community colleges that already do an excellent job educating our students both in person and online.”

Calbright received $15 million annually from the California state budget, according to the college budget summary for the 2022-2023 academic year. The state also gave Calbright $71 million in one-time seed funding when it launched.

After the auditor’s report, the CFT called reinvestment of Calbright state funding to traditional community schools.

California Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who co-sponsored the bill to close Calbright in 2022, could not be reached Monday.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration applauded the enrollment milestone and remained steadfast in favor of the college’s mission.

“CalBright embodies California’s student-centered values—meeting working students where they are, expanding lifelong learning, and preparing graduates for career success,” said Ben Chida, principal deputy secretary of the Governor’s Cabinet. “It’s exciting to see real lives improved.”

Newsom has been a staunch advocate for Calbright, as was his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, who helped found the college.

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