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“Can We Scale The Way We Do Business? Are We Going To Rise To This Occasion As A Country?” 

At a presentation at the Bay Area Council on Tuesday, Calbright President Ajita Talwalker Menon and Eloy Oakley, former California Community Colleges chancellor and current president of the College Futures Foundation, laid out the challenges and opportunities higher education faces, both in California and across the country.

California has the largest higher education systems in the U.S. California’s community colleges alone—with over 1.8 million students—make up the nation’s single largest higher education system. The state is also one of very few that is currently investing in higher education, rather than cutting budgets.

But this good news can obscure significant challenges: affordability, equity, a decline in community college enrollment, and the development of remote learning, among them.

Menon and Oakley’s message was clear: California’s higher education system needs to learn from what happened in the pandemic and move forward to create new kinds of systems if it’s going to succeed.

“The learners look very different than they looked a couple decades ago. The demographics of higher ed have changed, and the need for higher education has become more urgent,” Menon said. “Students’ actual needs go beyond just putting things online. Students are telling us what they need. They are voting with their feet in terms of preferences, not out of vanity but out of necessity.” 

“The thing that keeps me up at night,” she said, “is: are we going to rise to the occasion as a country?” 

Oakley, who is also a member of the University of California Board of Regents, said that “students have pretty much had it with (traditional) higher education. They’ve gotten a taste of what it means to be remote. They want more of that.” Even before the pandemic “there were more and more questions about the value proposition: why am I going into a 2, 3, 4, 5 year program? What’s the return on my investment?”

The good news, Menon said, is that “there’s pockets of amazing things going on throughout the state, and the challenge here in California is: can we scale these things? Can we change the way we do business? We can’t use the old ways of doing business to try to achieve something different in terms of the outcome.”

They both pointed to Calbright College as an example of a way to better serve more diverse populations of students.

The Calbright difference can be seen in every aspect of its design. It’s free to all Californians and accepts every Californian who applies if they are over 18 and have a high school diploma or equivalent. There’s no student debt nor convoluted application process. Calbright is entirely online, it’s flexibly paced so students can take classes around their schedules, and it utilizes Competency-Based Education, meaning learners can spend as much or as little time on each section of the program without any penalty. Calbright’s programs focus on preparing students to earn industry valued certifications in less than a year, which serves as a gateway for knowledge economy jobs in growing industries.

It’s a unique model of higher education unlike anything offered in the California Community Colleges system, and even after just a few years in operation, it’s reaching its intended population.

“Over 90% of (Calbright’s) students are 25 years and older. 70% of our students are BIPOC. A third of our students are parent learners, that’s three times the system rate,” Menon said.  “We feel fairly confident about the demonstration of progress that we’ve had so far, and this is only three years after having our first enrollment.”

See the whole conversation below.

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