News & Commentary

State of California Higher Education in 2020: Opportunities to Scale Success and Serve All Students

A happy student, holding a diploma, hugs her father

As this new decade begins, California higher education stands at a crossroads of great opportunity.

While most states have not fully reversed the spending cuts of the Great Recession, California is now spending more per student than in 2008. Investments in remedial education reform, improved counseling and services, and streamlined college pathways are moving more students toward academic achievement and degree completion. Success rates are growing at each segment, from community college students earning the credits needed to transfer to California State University and University of California students graduating within six years.

In 2020, we need to keep the momentum going to ensure that all students have an opportunity to attend college and earn a degree, regardless of their zip code, skin color, or income. Although the vast majority of California’s K-12 students are of color and low-income, these students continue to make up a minority of graduates from our state’s universities.

Investing in equitable higher education outcomes strengthens our state economically and socially. When students earn a bachelor’s degree, they will significantly boost their family’s socioeconomic status for generations to come. Communities benefit from increased employment and revenue, decreased reliance on social services, increased civic engagement, and faster growth in technology and other innovations.

Even with the threat of a recession, California will be able to overcome the challenges ahead if state leaders build on recent advances in college access and success. Our state’s greatest assets are our young people, and as such, higher education must center on their needs. With these priorities, we can scale our gains and serve all students:

  • Operate as one education system. Challenges and changes within each segment of our educational system—K-12, community colleges, and universities—impact the others. Yet issues such as curriculum and capacity often are handled in silos, without much regard to each institution’s place in a broader system. The recent formation of the new Governor’s Council for Post-Secondary Education is a good start to greater alignment, and we should do more to organize, incentivize, and support leaders working together. With better coordination, the sharing of resources, and a collective sense of responsibility to support students on their entire educational journey, we can more easily remove barriers and enable students to achieve success in college and beyond.
  • Develop sustainable, predictable financing. With budgets that are determined year to year, California higher education operates in constant uncertainty. We need a new financing system that allows us to make long-term plans and encourages access and success for all students. Multi-year budgets would help stabilize funding so that policymakers and educational institutions could make better resource allocation decisions. Similarly, families should be able to understand and plan for college costs. Tuition changes should be set for each incoming cohort of students and tied to the cost of living index rather than increased dramatically to make up shortfalls. We also should explore a reserve fund that could be accessed during bad economic times to protect students from abrupt tuition increases and severe cuts in services. Whatever the details of a new finance system, students should no longer have to bear the consequences of our failure to plan.
  • Modernize the financial aid system. Today’s college students are more likely to be older, poorer, and have families to support. According to the recent Student Resources and Expenses Survey, about one-third of California students have struggled with housing or food insecurity, and students across all segments and regions spend an average of $2,000 per month for non-tuition costs. Increasingly, the public conversation about college affordability focuses on the full costs of attendance, not just tuition. But state policy has not kept up. Although the state has budgeted funds for emergency housing and increased Cal Grant funding, policymakers should do more to support low-income students across all segments. The financial aid system needs to be reformed to better reflect the changing needs and demographics of students. Completing a degree is critical to the long-term success of families as well as the state, and students should not be forced to choose between going to school and paying rent.
  • Expand capacity. Every year, California’s universities turn away tens of thousands of qualified students, threatening our state’s economic future and widening racial, income, and geographic inequities. California cannot afford to squander the hard-earned gains that have resulted in more students becoming college-ready; we must make room for success. The state needs to lean into and expand initiatives to guide students to their goals and help them complete their degrees more efficiently. Physical space can be leveraged more creatively and effectively, such as sharing facilities and offering more flexible class schedules. Regional partnerships between higher education, businesses, and governments, such as Growing Inland Achievement and the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium, can better assess local needs and develop solutions. By taking immediate action to accommodate the increased demand, we are ensuring that our students and state can realize their full potential.

These priorities are bold and ambitious and will require time, resources, and political will as well as focused effort from all of us – from policymakers to education leaders to numerous partners – working together. But California has never been afraid of dreaming big and achieving ambitious goals. Our state built its economic strength on providing quality, accessible postsecondary education. Now, we are poised for even greater success; we can reimagine higher education to expand the benefits of economic growth and social mobility to everyone.