For nearly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented disruption to California students and the institutions they attend. The coming year will likely be filled with continued uncertainty as colleges and students seek to return to some semblance of normality. How should policy makers and higher education leaders leverage their efforts to help students achieve their educational goals?
From our perspective, the focus must continue to be on student-centered policies and programs that improve access, completion, and equity in our higher education systems. Despite all the many problems created by the pandemic, it is also an opportunity to innovate and double down on approaches that are known to work. Key areas to monitor include:
- Equitable access to University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU). Among the 50 states, California ranks near the bottom in access to four-year colleges for recent high school graduates. Eliminating standardized tests could encourage more students to attend universities across the state. In addition to opening more places for new students, improving the community college transfer pathway would increase enrollment of low-income and underrepresented students in public and private universities across the state. Increasing the capacity of campuses in demand will produce the greatest gains.
- Support community college students. Understanding and responding to declining enrollment at community colleges, the state’s largest provider of higher education, is key to finding ways to re-engage these students. Community college students generally have fewer economic resources than other college students and are more likely to have been negatively affected by the pandemic. Recent reforms have been enormously successful in increasing students’ access to and taking the introductory English and math courses needed to progress to a four-year college. Even so, persistence rates beyond these courses remain too low. Identifying institutional reforms and student supports (eg, articulation agreements, guided pathways, and student aid) is essential to help students achieve their academic goals.
- Tax relief for institutions and students. Colleges and students have received $10 billion over the past two years in emergency aid from the federal government, and the governor’s budget proposes additional funding for public colleges across the state. These resources can help address lingering fiscal challenges due to lost revenue and increased pandemic-related expenses. Efforts to simplify, target and expand state financial aid programs to the most needy students will be critical in the coming year, given the uneven economic impacts of the pandemic. Additionally, new initiatives such as dual admission, which would provide seamless transfer to UC or CSU after completion of lower division coursework at a community college, could provide cost-effective ways for more students to attend. obtain a university degree.
- Development of a cradle-to-quarry data system. California is on the verge of establishing a data system that connects K-12, higher education, labor and social services data, and that would provide tools to answer important policy questions and navigate college access and success. Other states have used their systems to more effectively and efficiently direct funding and develop intervention policies and programs that maximize student success. California can leverage the experiences of these states to implement a system that provides critical information to students, parents, institutions, and policy makers.
- Online learning. Distance learning is likely to play a much larger role in higher education than in the past. Identifying the best methods and circumstances for delivering online education should be a focus in the coming year. The Community College System’s online education initiative provides tools to help college leaders adopt effective approaches. Ensuring that students have the resources they need, including access to technology, remains essential. Other changes to policies and programs, including flexible hours and online student services, would further support students with work or family obligations.
Before the pandemic, great strides had been made in increasing the number of Californians with college degrees. UC and CSU had enrolled more students, improved student achievement, and increased graduation rates. Community college reforms have led to dramatic advances in student access and success in transfer-level courses. At the same time, strong state support helped reduce tuition and fees, and the share of students taking out loans was falling. Building on this progress and applying lessons learned during the pandemic will go a long way toward improving educational attainment and achieving Governor Newsom’s goal that 70 percent of working-age Californians have a post-secondary degree or certificate. here 2030.
In the coming year, higher education will continue to struggle with student and staff health, distance learning and support services, and fiscal stability. Finding ways to better reflect the full diversity of California’s population remains a critical concern, which must be addressed if higher education is to serve meaningfully as a driver of educational and economic mobility. How will the state’s colleges and universities allocate resources to meet these needs and achieve state goals? At PPIC Higher Education Center, we are motivated to help find innovative ways to address these challenges – and more – in the weeks and months ahead.