With $120 Million and Few Students, California’s New Online Community College Faces Audit

February 28, 2020

With $120 Million and Few Students, California’s New Online Community College Faces Audit - (San Francisco Chronicle - Feb 28)

The California state auditor will take a deep look at the state’s unaccredited new online community college, Calbright, to learn whether it’s offering students what it promised — and whether its $120 million cost to taxpayers so far is money well spent, lawmakers said this week.

“We have some concerns regarding Calbright College,” Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, told the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee on Wednesday. He and two other lawmakers, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton (Orange County), asked for the audit at the request of community college faculty leaders.

The idea behind the fully online public college has been to help teach more people faster and cheaper than at traditional community colleges. But to critics, Calbright has appeared slow to enroll students and hire instructors, and expensive to run. Faculty leaders from other schools have long complained that the 115th community college duplicates the offerings of campuses across the state — prohibited in the legislation authorizing Calbright — and that its executives set up the college without consulting instructors. Meanwhile, Calbright employees have felt squeezed by the mandated legislative timeline of less than a year to establish the college from scratch.

The seven-month audit, to begin in July, will focus mainly on three areas. Auditors will look at whether Calbright’s three courses — cybersecurity, information technology and medical coding — improperly duplicate courses already offered at other community colleges. They will assess its efforts to become accredited and judge whether it’s overspending on everything from salaries and consulting contracts to equipment and office space.

State Auditor Elaine Howle told the committee that she’ll also look at quality, including whether students are satisfied and progressing, and will determine whether Calbright has complied with employment and procurement laws. Typically, state audits come with a set of recommendations to fix the problems, and years of monitoring.

Calbright opened on Oct. 1 and has stumbled often since 2018, when then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a fan of the possibilities for online education, conceived of it.

Most recently, its $385,000-a-year president and chief executive, Heather Hiles, quit without explanation last month after a year on the job as Calbright’s most vigorous cheerleader.

California’s community college Board of Governors doubles as Calbright’s Board of Trustees.

The vision for the college has been to train low-wage workers in their 20s and 30s for better jobs at little or no cost to them. Hiles had said the school would not only find jobs for every student, but would provide on-the-job coaching. In July, college officials said they expected to enroll only 300 to 400 students in their first year, giving themselves a better chance of success before opening the doors wide open.

Calbright today says it enrolls 38 students in its career programs: eight in cybersecurity, 12 in medical coding, and 18 in information technology; and another 510 in basic math skills and reading comprehension courses.

The Legislature allocated $100 million in startup funding for Calbright and promised another $20 million a year.

“They’re being funded at a rate 1,000 times higher than our traditional community colleges,” Jim Mahler, who heads the California Federation of Teachers’ community college council, told the audit committee.

Calbright’s spokesman, Taylor Huckaby, later called Mahler’s figures an exaggeration, given that the money is intended to fund the college over many years, and that enrollment is expected to rise.

Yet this isn’t the first time Calbright has been accused of financial excess.

A year ago, Hiles pushed the trustees to approve a no-bid, $552,000 contract for a friend and politically connected executive recruiter. Troubled by their own actions, the trustees reduced the contract to $376,000 three weeks later.

A Chronicle review of Calbright records shows that the college is spending nearly $5.6 million on 36 employees, paying them an average of $154,764 each. The highest-paid employee is its chief learning officer, Audrey Heinesen, at $290,000.

Of the 36, eight earn more than $200,000 a year.

Calbright also has 22 contracts totaling more than $1.5 million, including one at $23,750 a month — annually, $285,000 — for its interim president and chief executive, Ajita Talwalker Menon, brought on this month. Menon was a special assistant of higher education to President Barack Obama.

“We feel an audit is premature, and its scope covers areas Calbright is still testing,” said Tom Epstein, president of the Board of Trustees.

Even so, he said, “we welcome and share the desire of Assembly member Medina to ensure that Calbright is operating in an effective and transparent manner.”