By Pamela Haynes, President of the Calbright Board of Trustees and California Community College system Board of Governors | Special to Sacramento Observer

OPINION (CBM) – While her baby is napping, Monica Holt is studying. A student at Calbright — the first-ever statewide, online community college — she’s logged in to her online learning platform, completing coursework at her pace; on her schedule. As a new mom, this means taking quizzes and reviewing assignments between diaper changes and playtime. “It totally works out for my working lifestyle and my family lifestyle. It just fits in perfect,” Monica says.

Like so many Californians, Monica was making ends meet working in restaurants before the pandemic upended everything. Even then, she dreamed of a more secure, more rewarding career to support her growing family. But without a college degree, Monica knew she would need to go back to school — no simple task with a newborn and a job.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Monica and the millions of similarly-situated Californians. Today, I’m President of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. But a few decades ago, I was a lot like Monica — a young, Black woman in California who knew education was the ticket to a brighter future.

Back then, Santa Monica College gave me the foothold I needed, setting me on a path to transfer to UCLA and secure a good job with benefits and a living wage. In the 40 years since, new technology and business concepts have drastically changed nearly every sector of the labor market. If we want to build a stronger, more equitable California, we need to remake the way we train and educate workers to keep up with those changes.

Even before the pandemic, too many Californians were locked out of secure, well-paying jobs. More than 8 million adults with a high school diploma but no college degree — disproportionately Black and Latino — were effectively stranded without a clear path to economic mobility. And economic experts were already predicting an employment crisis, saying California employers would be unable to fill a million jobs in fast-growing industries because workers lacked the necessary skills and training.

Then COVID-19 turned a crisis into a catastrophe. The same people who were already most likely to be left behind by our changing economy have borne the brunt of the pandemic. While white-collar workers with college degrees have mostly carried on working from home, blue-collar and service industries have been wiped out. Now more than ever, Californians need quality, affordable pathways to get back into the workforce and into better-paying, more secure jobs.

We know predatory for-profit colleges will be ready to pounce, promising struggling workers quick-fix solutions but often leaving them with a worthless degree and a pile of debt. Already last fall, first-time adult enrollments at for-profit colleges were up more than 13 percent from the previous year even as they dropped nearly 37 percent at community colleges. California’s working adults desperately need a debt-free, public alternative that meets their unique needs and offers a real path out of the cycle between unemployment and underpaid jobs.

That’s where Calbright comes in.

Calbright’s flexible, competency-based programs are designed specifically for busy working learners. Coursework builds on students’ existing knowledge so they don’t waste time on remedial or duplicative content. Coursework can be completed on the learner’s schedule, whether it’s after their kids are in bed or while they’re on the bus to their current job. The Calbright model isn’t about students showing up for a class and spending time in a seat. Instead, we’re focused on making sure students can demonstrate mastery of skills and knowledge employers are looking for.

Ideas that challenge the status quo will always be met with resistance from some corners. It’s true that Calbright’s previous leadership made early missteps but it’s important to recognize that we have corrected those mistakes, and on it’s core question, state auditor’s actually underscored the importance of Calbright’s mission.

As the auditors wrote, “Calbright’s pathways are not duplicative when compared to the other [California Community College] programs we reviewed… The need remains for flexible educational opportunities for California adults who face barriers to attending traditional community colleges, and if successful, the competency‑based education model that Calbright offers could provide those opportunities.”

We’re well on the way. Today, Calbright is a living, breathing college, with 500 students and more than 50 employees, including faculty represented by a local chapter of the California Teachers Association.

Over the next 3 years, we’ll continue to expand and enroll students, but we’ll take a responsible, measured approach to ensure we are scaling intentionally and providing high quality programs and supports to all of our students. We’ll keep strengthening partnerships with employers and experts to ensure our programs fit the needs of our labor market. We’ll continue to share what we learn with our sister colleges across the California Community College system — a mandate that is central to our mission. And we’ll never forget that equity is at the center of Calbright’s existence and our mission.

This has been a hard year for California, but we have a chance to build back stronger with more inclusive paths into good jobs than ever before. As Governor Newsom says, “When this pandemic ends – and it will end soon – we’re not going back to normal. Normal was never good enough. Normal accepts inequity… There is no economic recovery without economic justice.”

I’ve been a community college trustee for more than 20 years because economic justice starts with educational justice, and I know that Calbright has an important role to play in building that new, more equitable normal.

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