SAN JOSE, Calif. — Jaelyn Deas and her four best friends shared everything, including late-night study sessions in the library at San Jose State University and a never-ending preoccupation over how they would pay for tuition.
The one thing they didn’t do together? Graduate.
While she was juggling a major in international business, a minor in Japanese and a job to help keep up with her expenses, Deas fell behind in class, and her friends put on their caps and gowns and walked across the stage in May without her.
That didn’t make Deas feel any better. She considered quitting or transferring to a community college. Then she was summoned to the financial aid office, where she learned that the university, part of the California State University System, was giving her a grant of up to $1,500 to help her get across the finish line.
“I walked out of the office crying. I had no idea something like this existed, and it took a burden off my shoulders,” said Deas, who is on track to earn her bachelor’s degree before the year is out.
It’s one example of the many ways that California is taking on seemingly intractable problems that are also plaguing higher education nationwide.
These include the longer-than-expected time it takes students to graduate; high dropout rates; financial aid that doesn’t cover living expenses; courses that cost more than students will earn upon graduation; institutions that prey on veterans and others; financial aid applications so complex that many students never bother with them; admissions policies that favor relatives of donors and alumni; credits that won’t transfer; pricey textbooks; and “remedial” education requirements that force students to retake subjects they should have learned in high school, often frustrating them enough to quit.
To tackle these problems, California is trying creative solutions. Among other initiatives, the state this year has invested heavily in helping community college students transfer to four-year schools; spent $50 million on campus food banks and other programs to combat student hunger and homelessness; opened an online community college to serve students who are working; and boosted state grants for students with children.
In funding these programs, California is bucking a national trend as most other states continue to reduce, not increase, their investment in higher education. With a higher education budget of $18.5 billion in 2019-2020, California is one of just four states spending more on higher education, per student, than they did in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank.
But California’s decisions can have a national impact. After it took on the NCAA in September by requiring that college athletes be allowed to sign paid endorsement deals, for example, legislators in New York, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina started mulling comparable legislation. That prompted the NCAA to let college athletes benefit from the use of their names and likenesses, though the association is still working out the details.
Fueling California’s changes and proposed changes — and the funding behind them — is a projected shortage of workers with the necessary degrees to fill jobs in fields such as business operations, computer science and health care. The investments have also been driven by a backlash to budget cuts made during the recession, and a concern that the state — whose public colleges alone include 10 University of California (UC) campuses, 23 California State University (CSU) campuses and 115 community colleges — is losing its long tradition of high-quality, low-cost education.
Californians remember “when younger generations could truly expect to live a better life than their parents and grandparents. And that dream has been fading,” said David Chiu, a member of the State Assembly from San Francisco who is active in education issues.
“That’s why so many of us have been focused on how do we bring this back,” Chiu said. “Because we had that history, because we knew what a well-functioning higher education system could do, we aspire to that again.”
Over the course of a century, California built the country’s most prestigious public research university and its largest and most affordable community college system.
A California resident in 1960 could earn a bachelor’s degree at the world-class University of California, or UC, for just $60 per semester in “incidental fees” — about $500 in today’s currency. That same year, the state adopted a master plan for higher education: The UC would serve the top one-eighth of graduating high school seniors while the top one-third would be eligible to attend a CSU campus, and the community colleges would be open to all.
The goal, writes historian John Aubrey Douglass, was “broad access combined with the development of high quality, mission differentiated, and affordable higher education institutions.”
But in the coming decades, politicians of both parties would respond to economic downturns by cutting higher education funding, causing tuition to rise. The trend peaked during the recession that began in 2008, when UC hiked undergraduate fees by nearly a third in a single year.
The upshot? Fewer than half of adults in California have college degrees or certificates, which is short of a state target of 60 percent by 2030 set by the Campaign for College Opportunity, an advocacy group.
“That number gets a lot of play across the street,” said Jake Jackson, a Sacramento-based research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, gesturing toward the state Capitol.
At the same time, California’s student population has become more ethnically diverse, with growing numbers coming from low-income families in which they are the first to go to college. No racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority here: Thirty-nine percent of residents are Hispanic, 38 percent are white, 14 percent are Asian and 6 percent are black. More than a quarter are immigrants.
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Cristina Mora remembers feeling lost and adrift after leaving her close-knit Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles to enroll at Berkeley in 1999 — “like there had been a clerical error, and I’d been admitted by mistake.” She didn’t take advantage of a professor’s office hours until her junior year, finally converting the Cs and Ds she’d been earning into A-pluses.
Today, Mora is an associate professor of sociology at Berkeley and a mentor to other first-generation college students. She says UC has made strides in attracting diverse applicants by increasing recruiting in previously ignored areas such as the Central Valley and towns along the Mexican border and making it easier for community college students to transfer. Students of Mora’s generation returned to their communities, she said, bringing with them “a sense that the UC system provides an opportunity and that these are places that would be welcoming.”
But black and Latino students still are less likely than their peers to graduate from UC or CSU institutions in four years and are underrepresented on the state’s most selective campuses. Among UC students, they take on higher-than-average levels of debt.
“We have a long history of not catering to these populations,” Mora said.
If policymakers are going to close California’s graduation gap, they’ll have to figure out how to meet the needs of students like Mora and Deas. And if California can do that, perhaps the rest of the country can, too.
Brown wanted some public universities with low numbers of transfers to take one transfer student for every two freshmen, a goal they’ve largely met. The private, nonprofit member institutions of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities have agreed to collectively take 3,000 transfer students annually by next year.
Some of that extra money has gone to hire advisers and add sections of courses that were filling up too fast. Not getting into the classes he needs is still the fear of James Soberano, a San Jose State freshman majoring in computer engineering, who was pecking away at his laptop in the student center.
“I definitely want to be out of here in four years,” Soberano said.
The completion grant that Deas got is part of a program that began last year for seniors who are within two semesters of earning their degrees and meet other requirements. They can receive up to $1,500 per semester. Seventy percent of recipients have graduated, the university says.
Since 2017, however, California’s community colleges have instead begun putting less-well-prepared students into credit-bearing introductory courses with extra tutoring. The CSU system, too, started doing this last year, and also funnels students with low high school grades or standardized test scores into special preparation programs in the summer before their freshman year.
Bright murals decorate the walls of UC Berkeley’s Basic Needs Center, framing the entrance to a food pantry laden with organic mac and cheese, fresh produce and bread from the nearby Acme Bakery.
Students who have trouble affording food and rent come here to do their grocery shopping, sign up for public benefits or meet with counselors. A community kitchen is under construction, and volunteers use a custom tricycle to pedal around nearby neighborhoods collecting excess produce from residents’ gardens.
The center is the result of student activism spotlighting the nontuition costs of college in a state where the price of housing has soared. The goal: to ease students’ stress about food and shelter so they can focus on their studies.
California is well positioned to address college affordability because unlike in many other states, every low-income student who has completed high school within the previous year and meets academic requirements is entitled to a state scholarship, the Cal Grant, that helps pay their tuition.
While hundreds of thousands still miss out on the grants each year because they took time off before college, this relatively generous tuition aid has nevertheless freed policymakers to think about how to make the other aspects of college more affordable, said Lande Ajose, senior policy adviser on higher education to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“For six of the last seven years, tuition has remained flat at our colleges, and yet we find the cost of college increasing, and that is because the cost of living is increasing,” Ajose said.
Campuses are opening food pantries like the one at UC Berkeley, holding outreach fairs to sign students up for the state’s version of the federal food stamp program and starting emergency housing programs, all backed by more than $50 million in this year’s state budget set aside to combat student hunger and homelessness.
Those funds came after students packed legislative hearings over the past two years to testify about rising rents and piling 30-hour work weeks on top of their study time. That kind of activism also stands out from what is happening in most other states, where students lack strong statewide organizations or are less involved in state politics, said Max Lubin, an Education Department official in the Obama administration who started the advocacy group Rise while a graduate student at Berkeley. The group provides paid fellowships for students to spend a semester lobbying on college costs.
“California higher education leaders have learned in the last couple of years that they can get a lot more done by working with students than in conflict with them,” Lubin said.
The state has taken steps to help older students, too.
Newsom successfully pushed this year to provide students at public universities and colleges who are parents of dependent children with as much as $6,000 a year for books, child care and other nontuition expenses on top of tuition aid. An estimated 29,000 parents qualify, the governor’s office says. In September, the state debuted an online community college designed especially for people 25 to 34 who are already working but don’t have a college degree or certificate.
California is not the only state trying to improve student outcomes, or to make policy in the absence of federal action. Amid the partisan bickering in Washington, the Higher Education Act, which covers all federal regulations over higher education and which Congress typically reauthorizes every four to six years, hasn’t been updated since 2008.
Louisiana last year started to require high school seniors to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Texas will also require this, beginning in 2021-22. Thirty percent of undergraduates never fill out this form, forgoing the chance to receive financial aid; 30 percent of them would have qualified for a federal Pell Grant, research supported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found.
Colorado is dropping remedial courses, too, beginning in 2022, and universities and colleges there have already started getting rid of them.
But few other states are trying as many experiments at once as California, or can do so at such scale. California’s size will continue to make it a laboratory for innovation, Kevin Cook, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, said.
“If you can make something work here, it will probably work anywhere else,” he said.