How California’s $47B investment in higher education could help students

Governor Newsom approves several bills aimed at boosting affordability and transfer options at public institutions.
By: | October 7, 2021
Photo courtesy of Office of Governor Newsom

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law more than 20 bills in a $47 billion package that will be earmarked toward improving affordability and access in the state’s higher education system, and more specifically, aiding the transfer of community college students to four-year institutions.

Part of the California Comeback Plan, the higher ed investment is said to be one of the largest ever by one state toward colleges and universities and will include $2 billion toward student housing that should help alleviate some of California’s dire residential crisis.

“Californians have thrived at our world class universities for decades, but not everyone has had similar access – today that’s changing,” Newsom said. “Everyone deserves a shot at the ‘California Dream’ – we’re eliminating equity gaps and increasing opportunities at our universities to make those dreams a reality for more California students. It’s an unprecedented historic budget for higher education in the state of California. Mark this moment – $47 billion.”

Among the key pieces were two proposed by Assemblymember Marc Berman that should help improve pathways for community college students looking to move up to the University of California and California State University systems, where just over 20% of students now make those transfers.

The first mandates that the two systems work together to form a singular general education gateway for admission starting in 2025-26, while community colleges must establish a guaranteed transfer path for students by fall of 2024. The second, the creation of a “student-facing, common course numbering system”, will make it easier for community college students to identify relevant classes.

“When students discussed their experience with the transfer process from community college to four-year university their message was loud and clear: transfer is too complex, confusing, and difficult to navigate,” Berman said. “Instead of being a clear path, it’s a maze, and it’s costing students time and money that they can’t afford. Together, Assembly Bills 928 and 1111 will make it easier for students to achieve their educational goals.”

Not all of California’s heavyweight higher education groups, however, are on board with the massive package. Cal Matters reports that the UC Office of the President, the Chancellor’s Office of the California Community Colleges and some faculty and senates have expressed concern, though student associations for the two systems do back it, as does the CSU.

“From historic investments in financial aid and student housing that will benefit students to a radical revamping of transfer, 2021 is a landmark year for public higher education in California,” California State University Chancellor Joseph Castro said. “We appreciate the bold vision demonstrated by Governor Newsom and his commitment to further improving education access and outcomes throughout the Golden State.”

Among the most pressing needs addressed by the package is more affordable housing options for students. Under newly passed legislation from Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, the CSU must perform a needs assessment and plan that factors in projected enrollment and completion over the next five years. The bill asks, but does not mandate that the UC system do the same. The Los Angeles Community College District also will be trialing a program to offer affordable housing to its students and employees while seeking partnership opportunities with nonprofits or private companies to make that a reality.

Affordability is another concern. Though California’s students at community colleges and public institutions enjoy low tuition, the state remains 30th in the nation for those applying for Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA). Three approved bills aim to boost those numbers as well as those who apply for the California Dream Act.

The first would expand withdrawals from 529 plans for registered apprenticeship programs and student loan repayments. The second would require the California Student Aid Commission and the California Department of Education to share data on form completions. And the third would expand the California Student Aid Commission’s power to financially back projects through the California Student Opportunity and Access program.

The goal is to get students and families the assistance they need without cumbersome procedures of fear of submitting forms.

“California’s student financial aid application process is overly complex and burdensome to students and families,” Assembly Bill 469 states. “Many eligible students do not complete a financial aid form because they believe they are ineligible, have no information on how to apply, think that the forms are too much work, or do not want to share personal information because of deportation fears. As a result, California’s students leave, on average, $550,000,000 in federal and state financial aid on the table. [The Act will] allow California to maximize the number of its students who apply for and receive federal and state financial aid without creating an undue burden that prevents some students from graduating, without impacting student or parent immigration status, and with full protection for student and parent data.”