(Photo courtesy of Calbright College)

State lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to audit Calbright College, California’s online-only community college, just five months into its existence.

The 14-0 vote by the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit signals that critics from the college’s faculty union have succeeded in raising doubts among lawmakers about whether the state needs a separate, online-only community college. The committee has the authority to approve state audits.

The audit will get underway after July 1 and could take about seven months to complete. Lawmakers want the audit to examine whether Calbright is serving the students it was created for, whether the college’s classes too closely resemble courses offered at other community colleges and whether it has complied with state law. It also will look into the college’s finances, salaries and expenses to see if it has appropriately used state money.

The audit is estimated to cost the state $375,180.

“I do realize they’ve been in operation for perhaps a short amount of time, but it’s in the interest of the Legislature to very much know how they’re doing,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, chair of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. “We don’t want to spend a long time going down the wrong path.”

Medina, a Democrat, requested the audit committee approve the inspection.

Heather Hiles, the college’s first president, suddenly resigned in January. Interim President Ajita Talwalker Menon, who helped develop the legislation that created the college, replaced her less than two weeks ago.

Calbright, while free to students, is getting $100 million in state funds over seven years for startup costs and about $20 million annually for operating expenses. The school has spent $9 million since its launch. The college opened to students in October and has since enrolled more than 500 students into a required first level course. So far, 38 students have moved on to one of three program pathways, all of which are self-paced and designed to be completed in under one year.

Jim Mahler, president of the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers, the union representing 30,000 community college employees, told lawmakers that the audit is ultimately a good decision for taxpayers.

“Calbright still doesn’t have anything to bring to the table and certainly nothing to justify the amount of money being wasted,” Mahler told EdSource. “They’re misspending tens of millions of dollars on an enterprise to serve, at this point in time, 38 students,” he added referring to the students who are enrolled in one of three program pathways.

“That money could be better spent in the existing 114 accredited community colleges where we do all of the same things Calbright is doing but at a fraction of the cost,” Mahler said.

Some educators, faculty groups and unions have criticized the amount of funding Calbright has received to serve fewer than 1,000 students. Carlos Turner Cortez, president of San Diego Continuing Education, which is part of the San Diego Community College District, said his organization had spent the past five years developing an online college to offer the same type of self-paced, short-term certificates as Calbright. But the San Diego initiative costs less than $500,000, he said.

The college is under intense scrutiny from critics who claim that it is violating state law and duplicating programs already offered by the state’s other 114 community colleges. Medina said he’s concerned that the college is not adequately meeting certain milestones set by the legislature and that students are not receiving enough “hands-on support.” Those milestones include developing a seven-year implantation plan, creating an accreditation plan and building a student experience that includes apprenticeships.

The college was seen as a bold initiative championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown to serve so-called stranded workers — those who need additional skills to advance in their careers without having to go back to college to get a degree. Brown envisioned the college as serving adult and underemployed populations of students who are working part time or stuck in positions that don’t pay a living wage. The California Community Colleges system identifies those students between the ages of 25 and 34. Despite that focus, any student can enroll in the college.

Medina said he was dissatisfied with comments made by Calbright leadership at a joint oversight hearing held on the college earlier last month. During that hearing, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley defended Calbright and said the courses at the school do not duplicate courses at other colleges. College officials also said they were still meeting with companies to develop an apprenticeship program, but Medina said he hadn’t seen enough proof that this is happening.

He said the audit’s time frame will give Calbright officials “sufficient time to show whether the program will be successful or not.”

Calbright Board President Tom Epstein appeared before the lawmakers saying it was too early for the college to face an audit and asked lawmakers for more time.

“We feel an audit is premature and covers many areas Calbright is still developing and testing,” he said. Epstein said the college is meeting those milestones set by the legislature, and is working quickly to hire faculty. And an external audit from June 2019 found no financial problems at the college, he said.

Epstein called on the lawmakers to, instead of an audit, work with the college’s new interim president to address any concerns they have about Calbright.

Story originally published by EdSource.