Online education and digital colleges have had over a decade of hype, but they also have a history of underperforming. That shouldn’t surprise us: new technology often comes with immense promise and then takes time to be applied effectively. But when the right approach and the right technology reach the right students, it can make a difference and change careers for the better.
How California Has It Both Ways
When California founded Calbright in 2018 to be a new kind of public community college—online, statewide, focused on career outcomes instead of degrees—it was embracing two different, and even contradictory, aspects of education technology.
The first is that Calbright is a college for everybody: it is open to all adult Californians with a high school degree or equivalent. We don’t turn any qualifying California resident away. That is only possible because of the internet. It doesn’t happen without technology, and it’s a huge step forward for accessibility in higher education.
At the same time, Calbright is designed to focus on the needs of specific populations: over six million so-called “stranded workers.” These are adults without a college degree, often from traditionally disenfranchised populations, who have busy lives filled with responsibilities, and are un-or-underemployed. Working parents and people who are tending to aging parents, people who work in industries that are disappearing because of technology, people who have been out of work for a long stretch and are trying to get back in, people who know they need an education to get ahead but never succeeded in school … these are populations that conventional colleges and universities have often left behind. Calbright’s mission is to put their needs front and center.
The failure to design online education around the needs of specific populations is one of the reasons experts say it has so often failed to live up to its potential. As Calbright’s President, Ajita Talwalker Menon, recently said at a forum on education:
“It’s not one-size-fits-all. Online education is a mode, it is not a model. And what we are experiencing is that we have to have new models, new approaches, new fully comprehensive ways of surveying different populations of learners, and that is key.”
By using technology to design for the needs of a specific population of underserved students, Calbright has the potential to help them succeed in ways that traditional education has not. At the same time, it is open to everyone because without that level of accessibility, it is not likely to reach the populations who most need its help. It must be easy to access and welcoming if people are going to use it at all.
Meeting both of those two, sometimes contradictory, conditions met, is what sets California’s newest community college up to succeed.
Fast, Free, Focused – And A Positive Career Impact
Calbright is a new kind of college. It only started operating in late 2019, and earned accreditation in 2023. But the results so far have shown that it works. This is a model that gets results.
We see this first in persistence data: just over half of traditional college students, and even fewer online students, continue their studies after the first semester. At Calbright, over 90% of students do. That’s a significant impact, emphasizing the effect that designing an online college around student needs can have.
Most importantly, available data shows that students who complete Calbrights programs are likely to have career boosts in a year or less. According to a March 2023 study, which used LinkedIn data and interviews with a random sampling of 140 recent Calbright graduates, over half of students had secured gainful employment since graduating Calbright (and likely undercounted, since students who did not respond to the survey were counted as “unemployed”).
Additionally, a survey of Calbright alumni showed that:
- 100% of alumni responded that they were satisfied with their studies at Calbright;
- 69% reported being employed after completing their program;
- 54% reported that Calbright’s curriculum had a positive impact on their employment by the time they were responding to the survey; and
- 24% said they had experienced a positive impact on their employment within just three months of program completion.
Results like this tell us that more than half of Calbright graduates, and as many as two thirds, improve their careers as a result of completing a program at Calbright. That’s because Calbright is an online college that combines focus with accessibility. Student satisfaction is incredibly high, and better jobs and new careers are a result.