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Courtesy California Community Colleges

Tensions have surfaced among college leaders and employees at Calbright College, California’s first fully online community college, over how the institution counts enrollment.

Some former and current employees at the college are concerned about high numbers of students being counted as actively enrolled despite showing little engagement with the online platform for months at a time. The employees believe this practice provides state lawmakers an inaccurate assessment of student enrollment and growth and presents a misleading picture of progress, even as many students struggle to complete courses and earn certificates.

The college’s leaders say they use standard methods for counting enrollment at online institutions like Calbright.

The upstart college has 518 enrolled students, according to a recent report released by the institution, but a quarter of them -- 129 students -- don’t appear to be making significant progress in their programs; 75 percent of students completed a “substantive academic activity,” such as finishing an online course module or project, in 180 days. Eighty-eight percent of students completed a substantive academic activity or engaged with the platform in some way in 180 days.

The report also showed that 569 students dropped out since the college was founded in 2019. Only 68 students have graduated with certificates in four areas of study, and 63 graduated with industry-recognized certificates in two years.

Calbright previously lacked set protocols for when to remove inactive students from the enrollment rolls. But the college shifted course and launched a new policy in July 2020 to evaluate students’ academic progress individually within a six-month period and to withdraw them from the institution if they remain disengaged and unresponsive to outreach after 180 days. Some currently enrolled students who will reach the 180-day limit in the next few months will likely be dropped, the report says. Calbright also established a provisional enrollment period where students must accomplish one substantive academic activity within the first month of enrolling to be considered actively enrolled.

Higher ed experts have mixed views on the standard practice for calculating enrollment for online programs.

Waiting six months to withdraw inactive students seems “fairly standard for a competency-based program,” said Jennifer Lerner, senior director of research at EAB, an enrollment consulting firm, who focuses on community colleges and continuing and online education. But “it’s pretty complicated, and I wouldn’t say there’s a very consistent industry standard,” even for online programs in general. “There’s a lot of faculty autonomy across institutions and within institutions about how much interaction they expect students to have.”

Allowing for 180 days of student inactivity seems “generous” for online programs at large, but programs where students are working independently, versus in a cohort, tend to have high numbers of relatively inactive students, said Gary Matkin, dean of continuing education and vice provost of the division of career pathways at the University of California, Irvine.

“It’s really tough,” he said. “If you have an independent study program, you really have to have a student service thing that contacts people all the time. You really got to be on those folks, because they’re just not going to do it on their own without a lot of nudging.”

Ted Lai, vice president of student services and success at Calbright, said for at least the first four weeks of a student’s enrollment, staff members contact students on a weekly basis, because administrators found that “those initial few months at the beginning are essential at having success throughout the program.” Later on, students are contacted at least monthly, but the institution solicits student feedback about how often to contact them, and “we’re continuing to adjust as we go.”

Calbright administrators contend in the report that the goal of the new policy is “to balance our learners’ need for flexible pacing with a clear structure for determining enrollment status.” Critics argue the time frame is too long and inflates the college’s enrollment numbers.

Jesse Lawson -- who formerly served as Calbright’s interim executive director of early product development and director of information systems -- resigned Oct. 5 after raising concerns about how the college calculates enrollments.

“Since August 2020, I have made senior members of the executive team aware of several misleading and unethical practices at Calbright College that are incongruous with my 16 years of professional experience as a public servant in California, eight of which have been in the California Community College System as a classified staff member, faculty member, and administrator,” Lawson wrote in his resignation letter, which referenced Calbright’s method for determining enrollment totals. “Since these behaviors have continued unabated, I am bound by moral imperative to discontinue my association with this organization.”

Lawson’s resignation occurred during a year of significant staff turnover at the college. At least 16 employees and contractors resigned, and at least 14 have been let go since September 2020, according to a college official who did not want to be identified. It’s unclear if any of the departures were related to concerns about the enrollment numbers.

Ajita Talwalker Menon, president and CEO of the college, said the number of inactive students, and the six-month period allowed for them to exhibit academic progress, reflects the kinds of students Calbright serves: working adults with children who may be taking care of sick family members or struggling with financial losses during the pandemic. Calbright was created as an option for students 25 and older to pursue career training in a competency-based education model, where skills and experience they already possess help them earn certificates.

“I think people sometimes forget the real-life challenges that these learners are facing,” Menon said. “From our perspective, we will continue to adapt ourselves to try to do more that we can, so we can ask and answer the question, ‘Are we doing everything institutionally possible to support them at the right points in time?’

“That’s a building process,” she added. “There’s not a blueprint for this. This is not a community of learners that we serve well in the higher ed system. This is a community of learners that has often fell through the cracks.”

Pamela Haynes, president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors and the Calbright Board of Trustees, emphasized that the pandemic caused students at community colleges across the state and nationwide to temporarily stop taking classes or drop out altogether.

The California Community Colleges system has suffered staggering enrollment drops since the start of the pandemic. The decline amounted to a loss of more than 186,688 students from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

“It really isn’t unique to Calbright,” Haynes said of students struggling to complete courses. “One of the benefits of Calbright is … it’s a start-up, it’s small, it’s agile, it’s looking at this population of students who are really, really challenged, and [it is] trying to be flexible on so many different areas and to provide the supports. Calbright really isn’t alone in trying to figure this out.”

A former administrator at Calbright, who worked at the institution for nearly two years before being let go, is not convinced that the number of inactive students is the norm. The administrator, who did not want to be identified, believes college leaders use the uniqueness of the institution’s model as an excuse for “a deceptive accounting tactic to essentially inflate their numbers.”

The former administrator pointed out that Western Governors University, a private, fully online institution that also has a competency-based model, allows students to be inactive and unresponsive to outreach for 28 days before withdrawing them. The six-month period is “extremely alarming because it’s California’s tax dollars that are funding this,” the administrator said.

State lawmakers originally appropriated about $20 million in annual funding and $100 million in start-up funds over seven years when they approved the creation of Calbright. The state Legislature reduced the annual funding to $15 million in 2020 and also cut start-up funding to $60 million, according to EdSource.

The college has been a source of debate since its inception under former governor Jerry Brown. Opponents of the college, such as the California Community Colleges system’s faculty union, argued dollars directed to Calbright would be better spent on supporting existing community college online programs. Calbright’s supporters -- including the community college system’s chancellor’s office and the former and current governors -- believe the college’s competency-based education model differentiates it from other colleges and makes it an innovative option for adult learners.

A state audit released in May examining Calbright’s progress through October 2020 criticized the institution’s former executive team for failing to make detailed plans for state funding, providing insufficient supports for students and having low graduation rates.

Calbright has survived two legislative attempts to disband the college, the most recent of which was postponed this summer.

“We’re doing something new, and higher education as an industry is not so inclined toward the newness,” Menon said. “They’re inclined towards standardization and tradition … When you’re the new kid on the block, [there’s] a level of scrutiny and a level of cynicism, even, sometimes that goes along with that … I don’t know many other institutions in the public sector who are every political budget cycle operating under the threat of being shut down.”

Some higher education experts say it’s difficult to compare how an institution like Calbright handles enrollment to how other institutions do so. Competency-based education programs are growing in popularity but are still offered at a small number of institutions.

The latest Postsecondary Competency-Based Education Research study, released in July, found that 128 institutions offered at least one competency-based education program between 2018 and 2020.

Kristina McElveen, a former instructor at Calbright, said college leaders should take responsibility for so many students pausing or stopping out. She believes students are disengaging because the learning management system is “not very intuitive” and curricula could be more engaging. (McElveen’s contract was not renewed by the college this summer, and she believes this was due to her voicing concerns about student retention. Taylor Huckaby, senior director of communications at Calbright, said he could not comment on personnel matters.)

“I’m sorry, I’m blunt, but the platform is not good,” she said of the learning management system. “It sucks. It’s very inferior compared to other curricula that you see at institutions. This is the detraction that you get when you don’t have a stable program, you don’t have good curriculum. It’s not engaging enough.”

Calbright leaders “want to run this like a start-up,” she said. “With education, you can’t run it like a start-up.”

Menon said she’s “not happy about where we are on the outcomes side,” but the experimental nature of Calbright is an opportunity to explore which strategies work -- and don’t work -- in helping students persist.

“I think that’s a conversation that’s really hard to have in traditional ed, largely because there’s often a public penalty associated with, you know, talking about what you’re trying, whether it’s been successful, whether it hasn’t been successful, how you are adjusting accordingly,” she said. “That sort of messy process of continuous improvement is not one that we typically celebrate, but it’s such an essential condition of serving these communities of learners better, these nontraditional learners better.”

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