Designing the Community College of the Future
Economic justice
Corporate strategyProduct innovation
Calbright College

In 2018, the State of California legislated Calbright College into existence as the first statewide, fully online community college, allocating to it $80 million for initial build and $15 million annually for seven years to operate. Finally, working adults across the golden state with no time for a traditional college campus could dream of earning a nonprofit, state-supported, accredited college degree.

Our approach

Design question

Calbright was designed from the start as a self-paced, competency-based alternative to traditional college. But how could such a dramatically different institution survive within a statewide education system founded on completely antithetical funding and credentialing models?

Design response

Soon after its founding, COVID-19, ubiquitous remote work, and statewide budget retrenchment changed everything. The college had no choice but to respond quickly to a massive and urgent workforce need. The design team embedded with Calbright staff, reporting directly to the CEO, to establish a unique business thesis, learner assessment approach, credentialing theory, policy library, and competency-based learning strategy—then operationalized these within the relevant departments internally. Working for over a year under a generous grant from the ECMC Foundation in Los Angeles, the team delivered a complete enterprise and product strategy that has set the college on its course for changing the lives of undervalued and overlooked people across California and beyond.


“The world of U.S. higher-ed and workforce development is an extremely esoteric and often very complex space, especially when working within publicly-funded state institutions. The list of stakeholders is endless, from administrators to faculty to taxpayers to elected officials. The needs of the working adult learner and, ultimately, the hiring manager in the job market, are often lost in all of this. It's very easy for big ideas to get watered down. Given the sheer volume of design constraints, especially in terms of feasibility—both technical and political—Lisa and her team had a very narrow window of solution space to work within. And yet they nailed it.”

Ajita Menon Talwalker

President and CEO at Calbright College