News & Commentary

Equitable, Affordable, & Timely Degree Completion: It’s Our Focus, and It Can Be Across California with Smart Policy

Photo of Ria Sengupta Bhatt

Last week, Governor Newsom and the state legislature agreed on a historic state spending plan that comprehensively invests in California’s future. The budget’s unprecedented investment in higher education aims to counteract enrollment decline at the California Community Colleges, support enrollment growth at the UC and CSU, improve college affordability through increased access to financial aid and nontuition support, as well as create better linkages between higher education and the workforce. These funds, coupled with a forthcoming infusion of resources from the federal American Rescue Plan, provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to alleviate the extraordinary burdens on students pursuing a college education and fuel their success toward a better, more equitable future.

A college degree paves the way for social mobility, economic prosperity, and improved quality of life, but there are serious barriers for students underrepresented in higher education today—made worse by the pandemic but extant long before it. Our educational institutions, though still stressed by the pandemic, are soon to be equipped with the resources to resolve these challenges, potentially permanently. How do we ensure that state and federal dollars make the biggest impact for the students who have the most to gain from a college degree yet face the biggest barriers to completing one? To advance more equitable higher education policies, College Futures recommends—and employs in our own work—the following set of guiding principles:

  • Center equity by focusing first on students with greater need. Most college students in California are people of color, often impacted by poverty and the first in their family to attend college; the pandemic hit these students hard. Witness this year’s pronounced drops in college enrollment and retention, as well as drops in applications for financial aid, especially among Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and low-income students. While the pandemic has worsened the financial well-being of low-income families and communities of color, the barriers that make college unaffordable or seemingly unattainable remain the same. ​If we do not use this moment to significantly double down on supporting the success of these students, we have squandered it. For example, ensuring community college students—who often have the most unmet financial need—are aware of the resources that they qualify for, and supporting them through the process of receiving those resources, is a key mechanism to support equity.
  • Engage students in the solutions. Students are the intended beneficiaries of higher education systems change, but they are too often left without seats at the tables where long-term solutions are defined and implemented. Institutional actions and state policies must be grounded in the lived experiences of students. As postsecondary institutions distribute emergency dollars and rethink student supports post-pandemic, how might they inform this process with a clear understanding of students’ shifting needs? They must not only engage students to learn where the current system is falling short, but also create spaces to work alongside student leaders who can inform and identify lasting and scalable solutions.
  • Focus on intersegmental opportunities. Increasingly, students attend multiple institutions on their educational journeys. And as they transition from one institution to the next, they must navigate often unnecessary hurdles that impede progress, lengthen time to degree, and result in persistent equity gaps in access, completion, and workforce entry. The inefficiencies and complexities of the current system have disproportionate impact on first-generation students and students of color. A stronger focus on the issues and opportunities around intersegmental alignment—for example, expanding access to K12-community college dual enrollment opportunities for underrepresented students to support equitable college completion–will help ensure that more students make it to the finish line.
  • Balance short- and long-term challenges. If California is to truly improve the way our system of higher education supports diverse students, we must balance alleviating urgent challenges with an eye and strategy for longer-term reform. Nowhere is the need for this approach more apparent than in college affordability. Yes, our state needs to help students meet their basic needs (food, housing, mental health, and more) so they can stay enrolled through this crisis. At the same time, we can work toward a longer-term vision of a robust, integrated, and proactive college affordability system that alleviates the burden of navigating and securing disparate resources, which currently falls heavily on student shoulders. This balanced approach also applies to colleges as they receive federal dollars. Institutions have through 2024 to use the latest round of federal stimulus funding. This extended timeline could allow colleges to strategically balance immediate needs with longer term systemic fixes.

These will be important strides forward. Of course, improvements to our state’s higher education policies do not stop at the conclusion of the pandemic, whenever that may be. In my role as Director of Public Policy at College Futures Foundation, I am leading the build-out of a strategy centered around the policy mechanisms needed to make good on this vision: a higher education system that equitably and consistently supports students in achieving affordable and timely degrees.

Already, the priorities of this strategy for higher education policy can be seen in the work of our grantee partners. To improve affordability, for example, we partner at the state-level with the California Student Aid Commission, which is instituting practices that help more students access the financial aid they are eligible to receive; improving its student outreach efforts; and identifying policy recommendations that expand student access to resources. At the local level, we support community-based organizations such as Go Public Schools Fresno, which has been working tirelessly to support students and families as they navigate the financial aid process virtually during the pandemic.

Like so many in this moment, we at College Futures are learning as we go and keeping our sights set on a better post-pandemic future. In this moment of challenge and opportunity, California has a new era of prosperity within reach—if we make it our policy to ensure higher education is affordable and equitable across our state.