Finding Approaches That Work for Adult Students – an Interview with Calbright’s President Menon

What excites Calbright President Ajita Talwalker Menon about leading her free online community college?

“There are very few opportunities in higher ed to design from the ground up an entirely new kind of institution that centers its design around its students’ needs,” she said. But Calbright is one such opportunity.

Appearing on The Illumination podcast, produced by Modern Campus, Menon said that she sees Calbright as a continuation of the work she was doing in the Obama administration, addressing the emerging needs of real people in a changing and challenging economic landscape, where too many people are shut out.

There are 6.8 million Californians between ages 25-54 who have a high school diploma and no degree, and there’s “a recognition that the way that we do education doesn’t serve those learners well,” she said. For a long time, students like that were even blamed for not being able to access education. “They were seen as hard to reach.” But in creating Calbright, the state of California acknowledged that meeting these students’ needs would require new approaches.

Approaches that Calbright, and Menon, are now at the forefront of developing.

“We found that the structure of our programs mattered a lot,” she said. “It was not just that it was online, it had to be online but flexibly paced. And it couldn’t just be flexibly paced, it had to be very skills based. And it couldn’t just be skills based, it has to be nimble and responsive, and give folks the preparation they needed to be responsive to the dynamic economy. And also statewide, and scalable.”

That requires a whole different approach to college, but it works. Menon cited the success of students like Alana, who couldn’t afford to finish her degree, but could go to Calbright – and then landed a job at an IT company, and was promoted twice.  

She also talked about Jeremy, who had completed an associate’s degree in film and radio production 30 years ago, then spent his career in the restaurant industry. He was successful, but COVID decimated the restaurant industry, putting him out of work. Now he’s enrolled at Calbright and is a stay-at-home dad, and says that Calbright’s flexibility makes it possible for him to continue his education.

“We were looking at it from the perspective of: how simple can we make it for the learner?” she said. “How many barriers could be reduced?”

That process of constant redesign to better serve the needs of non-traditional adult students is one of the things that most distinguishes Calbright’s approach from those of a traditional college. “We’re a different college today than we were six months ago, and will be a different institution again in six months. We’re in rapid cycle change and progress.”

Listen to the whole interview here.

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