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Calbright’s Strategic Vision: No One’s Ever Done This Before 

This month, Calbright released a new Strategic Vision, covering the remaining years of its “start-up” period and beyond, setting a bold new course for online learning. It outlines the College’s goals and metrics through 2027, sets specific priorities, goals, and time frames and clearly defines success.

Already on the leading edge of education innovation, innovations proposed in this vision will offer a whole new approach to higher education for adults. The Strategic Vision could have an impact across the entire California Community College system, and beyond. 

You can read it here. 

Designed For Working Adults

Calbright was created to be a new kind of college, reinventing higher education to specifically meet the needs of California’s “stranded workers” – adults who need higher education to improve their careers but who find conventional colleges inaccessible. While it is open to all Californians, its focus is on those traditionally excluded from higher education, whether because of economic status, race, gender, geography, or any other factor. There are an estimated 6.8 million Californians ages 25-54 with a high school diploma, and perhaps some college credit, but no college degree whose economic prospects continue to diminish in the face of a rapidly evolving economy. Calbright is designed for them.

At each new stage of its development, Calbright has invented systems that did not exist before, crafted existing best practices to work in new environments, and found new ways to include and retain the kind of students who are traditionally excluded and ignored. Its new Strategic Vision represents a third stage and third set of unique challenges that Calbright will be taking on. 

As Calbright succeeds, it makes new approaches, systems, and best practices available to everyone. Over time, this will serve as a blueprint for how to best nurture adult learner success and may significantly change the higher education landscape.  

Setting Up Something New

As noted in the journal Online Education, Calbright made waves just after it was started by announcing that it was doing away with many of the structures that are so common in higher education. Structures that we often don’t imagine could have alternatives. 

It wasn’t just that Calbright would be free, online, or that it would accept everyone who applied if they met its basic requirements (a California resident, 18 or older, who has a high school diploma or equivalent). It went far deeper:

To the surprise of many observers, Calbright threw out the entire Carnegie credit hour system—and threw out grading and degrees along with it. Instead, the college substitutes a competency-based education (CBE) model, which awards academic credit towards certificates based not on time but on the demonstrated mastery of clearly defined competencies. 

Calbright’s first period, from its founding legislation in 2018 through the release of its first Strategic Vision in 2020, was focused on setting itself up as a new kind of college, developing the first iteration of the systems it would put in place, and recruiting a “beta cohort” of students to test its fledgling approach. 

A History of Success For Unconventional Students

The period of Calbright’s first Strategic Vision, which began in 2021 and ran through 2023, required the College to refine its approach and operationalize its systems to prove that an online Competency-Based Education model could in fact scale up and successfully serve students from across California.

It succeeded, meeting every goal set in its founding legislation and exceeding many benchmarks.

  • During this period its enrollment increased by over 500%, from under 500 students in the summer of 2021 to 3,700 at the end of 2023.
  • It more than tripled the number of certificates it awarded, from just over 100 to more than 450.
  • It maintained a significantly more diverse student body than its sister community colleges, and had higher persistence rates.
  • It became truly statewide, with students in 52 of California’s 58 counties, and 34 of California’s 40 rural counties.
  • It was accredited more a year-and-a-half ahead of schedule.
  • It launched new programs, more than doubling the number of certificates it offers.

Among many other achievements.

It was a tremendous proof of concept. The model works. It reaches students and has the impact we want it to have.

The Next Challenge

Much of the new Strategic Vision is dedicated to expanding on these successes, increasing the number of students served and the programs offered while maintaining and advancing academic excellence and increasing and optimizing student support services and initiatives. 

But there is also a new fundamental challenge, something which has never been done before: developing a sustainable public funding model for Competency-Based Education.

No such model currently exists in California’s public higher education policy or infrastructure, and creating one is crucial to California’s leadership, Calbright’s long-term sustainability, and to the progress of meaningful innovation in adult higher education.

California spends a significant amount maintaining its community college system – $17.5 billion divided across 116 community college districts. Calbright receives only a small portion of those funds: $15 million annually through the state’s budget, which is roughly equivalent to .086% of the  community college system’s budget.

Calbright’s $15 million annual operating fund was applied when it had 100 students, and it is still applied when it has almost 4,000. That’s because at the time Calbright was founded, no one knew how much it actually costs to provide this new kind of education. How could they, beyond calculated estimates? The model hadn’t been developed yet.

This is complicated by the fact that the CBE model doesn’t rely on many of the metrics used to calculate college cost – especially “time.” In traditional higher education, major costs are measured by the academic credit hour, the semester, and the traditional academic calendar. But in Calbright’s CBE model, each student takes as much or as little time as they need. They can speed up through parts of classes that they already understand, and take as much time as they need to work on areas that they’re struggling with. They can take a break if someone in their family gets sick or work gets busy, and they can bear down on studying if they find some extra time. The “credit hour” in its traditional definition makes no sense in this scenario.

Solving this gap in current policy is one of the next innovation challenges Calbright’s Strategic Vision takes on. How does a California community college that utilizes a CBE and hands-on student support model receive adequate funding? Specifically, the Strategic Vision requires that by January 2026, Calbright:

  • Establish a baseline sustainable cost model that provides an initial benchmark for Calbright’s annual/ongoing funding needs to nurture student success. This is expected to serve as a general Competency-Based Education cost model across the CCC system.
  • Develop and implement a state funding model that supplements the $15 million in annual funding Calbright receives.
  • Continue to assess the effectiveness of a cost and funding model and work with the state and CCC Chancellor’s Office to adapt the model to other applicable instances within the system and address legacy hurdles for funding higher education CBE models.

When it succeeds, Calbright will have established the first sustainable public funding model for Competency-Based Education. That could be a significant step in higher education innovation.

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