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How Colleges Can Earn Back America’s Trust

College enrollments are declining, and a new survey from Gallup shows that only 36% of Americans have confidence in the higher education system.

That’s down from 48% in 2018 and 57% in 2015. It’s also a decline across the board: every group measured was less confident in higher education than they were just a few years ago.

And yet, studies continually show that a college degree can be a great investment. A new report by the Institution for Higher Education Policy reveals that a full 93% of students who get a college degree make enough money that, even after paying off student loans, they are more successful than individuals with just a high school diploma.

“Nearly all public and private non-profit institutions leave students better off financially,” the study writes, with the effect being greatest at public institutions.  

So college—at least the right college—is still clearly a path to a better life. Yet confidence is plummeting. Enrollment dropped by 8% from 2019 to 2022, the largest sustained drop ever, and here in California, enrollment in the California Community Colleges system has been falling since the Great Recession.

What’s going on?  

One culprit is the political climate. The Gallup analysis notes that “Gallup polling found that Democrats expressed concern about the costs, while Republicans registered concern about politics in higher education.”

At Calbright, we see two other issues – issues which are part of our mission to address.

It’s Hard To Have Faith In A College That Isn’t Accessible

The Gallup survey suggests that “the rising costs of postsecondary education likely play a significant role” in Americans’ loss of confidence in college. Between 2000 and 2021, average tuition and fees rose by 69%! At the same time, income inequality has risen and the middle class has shrunk. According to Pew Research: The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019. “This downsizing has proceeded slowly but surely since 1971, with each decade thereafter typically ending with a smaller share of adults living in middle-income households than at the beginning of the decade.”

So while a college degree may remain a vitally important credential, it is increasingly out of reach for a growing number of people. 

Cost, however, is only one aspect of accessibility – and college accessibility has dropped even more than college affordability. As more and more jobs become gig work or have uncertain hours from week to week, college becomes less accessible. As the cost for quality child and elder care increases and becomes harder to find, college becomes less accessible to many.

Calbright College’s student surveys show that while many students list “affordability” as the reason they come to our free, online, community college, even more students said that the flexible way we structure classes was important to them, because it meant they could make their education fit with their life.

Supporting Students Is Just As Important As Enrolling Them

Then there’s another issue: not everyone who enrolls in college completes it. In fact, as of 2021 an estimated 40% of American undergraduates dropped out of college. Many of those students took out substantial loans to attend college, and those loans still needed to be paid back – meaning the students had no economic benefit from going to college, and are in fact worse off than when they started.

It’s understandable that those students would lose confidence in college, too. Especially when many colleges work much harder at getting students to enroll than they do at supporting them once they’re signed up.

Put these factors together, and it’s fair to say that the right question isn’t “why aren’t more Americans confident in higher education,” but “what should higher education do to earn Americans’ confidence?”

One Solution: A New Kind of Community College – Free, Online, Fast, and Supportive

Calbright was founded by the state of California to address these issues. To find ways to make college more accessible to more people, and to help them persist through so that they realize the full benefits.  

The first way we do that is by addressing cost: our classes are free to Californians. That means more people are going to apply, and more people are going to enroll. It also means that if people do drop out, there’s no penalty. They don’t have student loans to pay back, and they can re-enroll whenever they’re ready. Students who struggle are more likely to come back if it doesn’t mean accruing more debt.

We also address accessibility by being exclusively online, and using an educational approach called Competency-Based Education which makes our classes flexible. Students can study from any place, at any time, working around their own schedules. They are evaluated by what they know, not how much time they spend in class or how long they sit in front of their computers. Students who work unpredictable schedules or tend to kids or their parents have no problem taking Calbright classes.

Finally, instead of offering traditional degrees, Calbright offers training for industry certifications that are entry points for roles in growing industries. This means Calbright is focused specifically on career education, and that our students can complete their programs in less than a year. 

Approaches like these make Calbright significantly more accessible to a diverse student body:  more than 70% of our students identify as members of BIPOC communities, while more than 90% are at least 25 years of age. Nearly a third of our students are parents, and they come from all across California – including places with no local college.

We create systems to keep them enrolled as well. Each student works with a counselor to set a plan for their education that will fit their life – and Calbright staff reach out and check in with them to help see it through. Every student has access (again, all free) to counselors, academic support staff, and their teachers. We also provide online communities, access to peer counselors and tutors, and a robust Career Services program that supports students not just in their studies but in their job searches. 

Put it all together, and it leads to significantly higher persistence rates among students who are traditionally disenfranchised.

Calbright is showing that it is possible for colleges to earn trust again. We can be the higher education Americans want, need, and deserve.

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