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Higher education leaders and advocates are celebrating the $308 billion California budget signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last Thursday for including $41.6 billion for higher education institutions for the 2022–23 academic year. However, some higher ed leaders were disappointed that long-awaited reforms to the state financial aid program were included in the budget but not funded.
General funding for the University of California and California State University systems increased 5 percent. The California Community Colleges are set to receive an increase of $600 million in ongoing base funding. The budget also invests in adding thousands of class seats for California residents to UC and CSU campuses, which have long lacked capacity to serve high demand among eligible local students.
“Over all, this was a really healthy, strong budget that is incredibly student focused,” said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based research and advocacy organization focused on student success.
She noted that community colleges had some major wins in this year’s budget. For example, the system will receive an additional $10 million in continuing funding to support campus basic needs centers that help students facing food or housing insecurity, plus $10 million in continuing funding to expand rapid rehousing programs. Between this year’s budget and last year’s, a total of $2.2 billion is designated for student housing grants to help colleges and universities build housing for low-income students, including a significant amount of funding for community college housing. That sum includes $542.1 million for specific projects at community colleges, compared to $389 million for UC housing projects and $487.9 million for CSU housing projects over the three-year period.
“I think the governor and Legislature continue to recognize that low-income students and students over all are still hurting and feeling the effects of the pandemic,” Dow said. “We’re finally, I think, admitting and acknowledging that students coming out of high school aren’t the traditional college student anymore. That money really acknowledges that most of our community college students are heads of households, and finding a stable place to live while going to college is a problem.”
Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, similarly appreciated the “recognition that community colleges need to be part of a multipronged approach to housing insecurity.”
He also expressed appreciation for a $650 million COVID-19 Recovery Block Grant to support efforts to combat learning loss among community college students during the pandemic, in addition to the “very favorable” bump in base funding for the system.
“This budget helps,” he said. “It doesn’t address all of the concerns and issues and decades and decades of disinvestment in community college. But it is a strong down payment toward a more sustainable path for community colleges.”
The budget also allocated $65 million to improve the system’s student transfer process and $64 million to help community college faculty members and administrators implement remedial education reforms laid out in the 2017 law Assembly Bill 705.
Campuses have reportedly lagged in following the intention of the law, which did away with placement tests and mandatory remedial math and English courses at California Community Colleges and sought to enroll as many students as possible in courses with transferable credits. The new funding can go toward providing extra academic supports and counseling to students to help them succeed in credit-bearing courses and professional development opportunities to teach professors to provide those supports, among other costs related to the reforms, Dow said.
Katie Hern, an English instructor at Skyline College and co-founder of the California Acceleration Project, a faculty-driven effort to track remedial education reform in the system, praised the investment.
“These funds will do so much to support strong and equitable implementation of the law,” Hern said in a press release. “These are big changes, and faculty need support to develop new classes and teach in ways that reach all students.”
The budget also included various allocations focused on minority students, especially at community colleges. For example, the budget dedicated $1.1 million in continuing funding to expand student chapters of the African American Male Education Network and Development student charters, which are intended to foster Black male success at California community colleges, and $179,000 to fund a study on best practices used by the Umoja program at California Community Colleges, which promotes academic success among Black students. The budget also allocated $8 million in continuing funding to California Community Colleges and the same amount to the CSU system to create more supports for Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, including targeted advising and counseling services and more course offerings in Asian American–Pacific Islander studies.
“This historic, ongoing investment of $16 million makes California the leader in taking necessary action to advance equity and inclusion in higher education, especially for AANHPI populations who have gone underserved for too long,” Karthick Ramakrishnan, chair of the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs, said in a press release.
Advocates for low-income students also celebrated reforms to the Cal Grant, starting in the 2024–25 academic year, that could significantly expand access to the state financial aid program. The Cal Grant Equity Framework, adopted in the state budget, removes barriers to the grant money that could extend the funding to more than 100,000 additional students. The reforms include getting rid of a one-year limit on time out of high school for students attending CSU and UC institutions and eliminating a GPA verification requirement for community college students, which can be an obstacle to older students who sometimes struggle to dig up their high school transcripts.
The new framework would also streamline the Cal Grant, notorious for its disorienting variety of grant types, by dividing the program into two kinds of awards: Cal Grant 2, for community college students, and Cal Grant 4, for students at four-year institutions.
“These major reforms to Cal Grants represent work that has been years in the making to fix financial aid and remove barriers that have kept out thousands of students every year,” Marlene L. Garcia, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, said in a news release. The budget sets aside funding for the commission to start planning for the changes.
However, changes to the Cal Grant were not funded in this budget, so the reforms will only be enacted if funding comes through in 2024. Newsom vetoed a bill to overhaul the Cal Grant last year after California Department of Finance officials opposed expanding the program because it would too costly.
Dow said she isn’t deterred by the lack of funding and still considers the Cal Grant reforms included in the budget to be a “huge win.”
“While the funding is not in this year’s budget, we have no doubt that the governor and the Legislature are going to ensure that it’s there in 2024,” she said.
Others aren’t so sure. Christopher Nellum, executive director of Education Trust–West, a research and advocacy organization focused on education in California, described the budget as “strong” and containing significant resources “directed to some of the most underserved and underfunded schools and communities and students.” But he was disappointed that reforms to the Cal Grant weren’t ultimately funded.
“For me, when you’re engaged in budget advocacy as education advocates, true success means securing dollars and cents for your priorities, for the students you’re advocating with and on behalf of, for the schools and colleges in our state,” he said. “I think this budget makes some promises … but it doesn’t actually put new money in the pockets of low-income students who would benefit from Cal Grant modernization. That means those students will continue to struggle until our state actually decides to write the check for a benefit that I think is overdue and much deserved.”