The new California state budget contains a lot of good news for higher education—from prioritizing equity and access to increasing funding for a host of programs. As California navigates the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic toll, these investments will be critical to ensure shared growth and prosperity along the way. In particular, several of these proposals will also help more Californians return to the classroom—or otherwise earn academic credit—and attain meaningful credentials for better-paying, twenty-first century careers. Their economic and social mobility will in turn benefit the statewide economy and have ripple effects across California’s diverse communities.
Looking across the myriad of postsecondary budget augmentations, it is heartening to see policymakers adopt budget solutions aimed at mitigating the economic, social, and racial divides facing our state. However, going one level deeper, what many of these budget initiatives also have in common is the need for careful, well-informed, and coordinated execution.
These programs are all designed to improve higher education and workforce alignment and address key barriers facing Californians, particularly low-income and parenting students, in accessing and succeeding in their higher education journeys. Yet as exciting as these priorities are—and as many opportunities as they will provide to California’s students—they are being executed by several different and siloed state agencies, highlighting the increased importance of establishing a new coordinating entity at the state level.1
If–like most other states–California had a state-level higher education coordinating entity in place, these programs could and would be housed and administered in ways that would leverage both state and federal dollars as well as state and federal public policy, across all our higher education systems. Such an entity could and should be charged with fostering the connective tissue that allows for more effective and efficient execution. Instead, if implemented separately, these programs risk losing some of their substantial potential along the way. If these programs were administered by a single higher education coordinating entity, it could improve implementation of these programs in multiple respects: avoiding programmatic duplication, increasing efficiency through the cooperation and coordination of different agencies on shared interests, respecting the limited capacity of existing agencies, enhancing productivity and execution by locating programs in agencies with relevant specialized expertise, and building in evaluation and oversight across higher education.
What many of these budget initiatives also have in common is the need for careful, well-informed, and coordinated execution.
Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez
The following programs from the 2021–22 budget provide examples of programs that would benefit from being housed and implemented by a new agency.
- Learning-Aligned Employment Program: Housed in the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC), this updated student work-study program intends to incentivize employers—and especially the University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges—to hire low-income public college students, including undocumented students, into campus-based jobs that connect to their educational programs. With a one-time initial infusion of $200 million and plans for an additional $300 million next year, this program would cover some administrative costs and allocate funding through the end of 2031 to public higher education institutions based on their share of students receiving the federal Pell Grant. In addition, the program represents a positive step toward improving higher education and workforce alignment by increasing collaboration between colleges, universities, and employers to ensure that the jobs performed by students complement their programs of study.
- Golden State Education, Entrepreneurship, and Training Grant Program: Also slated to be run by CSAC, this new one-time grant program intends to help low-income workers displaced from their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic access higher education to attain the training and skills needed to reenter the workforce. Grants will range from $1,000–$2,500, with lower-income recipients receiving priority, and half of the allocated $500 million in predominantly federal funds are specifically set aside for grants to parents with children under the age of 18 years.
- California For All College Service Program: Modeled on a pilot at the University of California, Merced and similar to AmeriCorps, this new $100 million program is designed to help low-income students afford to participate in internships and fellowships, learning new education- and career-related skills. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) will administer this high-potential program. But, thus far, there appears to be little specificity around the program’s elements, including specifics around eligibility, how funding will be distributed, or even the underlying programmatic intent. In the absence of guiding statute, OPR is left with significant leeway with scant guidance on implementation.
- K–16 Regional Collaboratives: Designed to streamline pathways between K–12-higher education and workforce, this new $250 million one-time competitive grant program is modeled after the Fresno DRIVE Initiative. A significant stipulation of the grants is that grantees will be required to implement recommendations from Recovery with equity: A roadmap for higher education after the pandemic, Governor Newsom’s Recovery with Equity Taskforce report. Though it’s an example of the administration and legislature driving change from both the ground up (e.g., regional partnerships) and top down (e.g., policy proposals from the task force), the dollars for this program have been appropriated to the Department of General Services (DGS) in order to contract with a third-party administrator.
- Low-Cost Student Housing Grant Program: The budget sets aside $2 billion, split over three years with $500 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year and $750 million for each of the following two years, for affordable student housing at the CCC, CSU, and UC and to support campus expansions at UC and CSU. Conceptually, this funding would be distributed according to how many low-income students a system serves, and ideally campuses within the same region could collaborate to acquire housing that could be shared by students from different institutions. However, while the annual budget act provides funding for this proposal, the accompanying statute dictating how the money will be allocated, and for what specific purposes, has yet to be passed by the legislature. Additionally, the proposal still lacks the much needed regional mindset whereby a region could come together to leverage these dollars with other campus, city, county or private resources, to meet the needs of students across multiple campuses and systems.
In the five higher education programs highlighted above, the state has allocated funding for them to six different state entities: CSAC, OPR, and DGS for further disbursement and also directly to UC, CSU, and CCC. Further, programs with seemingly similar goals and functions are being administered by different agencies. For instance, while CSAC will house the Learning-Aligned Employment Program, the California For All College Service Program, which also engages employers in providing students work-based learning, will be housed in OPR. Moreover, CSAC, which is already responsible for running the country’s largest state financial aid program and will have the daunting task of implementing significant reforms to the Cal Grant this year (plus continuing to make progress on ensuring that students eligible for a Cal Grant actually receive one), will take on the administration of even more programs—including the Learning-Aligned Employment Program and Golden State Education, Entrepreneurship, and Training Grant Program.
This budget act, for all its merits, falls short of acknowledging the commonalities amongst these proposals or linking the programs together in ways that allow those on the ground to weave resources together to benefit our highest need students. Without a state coordinating entity, California risks spending billions on efforts that create and reinforce siloed, complex, and inefficient programs and systems.
The budget act is a win for policy solutions, but the state continues to be hindered in its programmatic implementation by the lack of a higher education coordinating entity.
These promising programs would be significantly strengthened, allowing for more Californians to be served and supercharging our economy, if there were a statewide coordinating entity charged with building the connective tissue between the programs and leading with Californians’ needs first. With a coordinating entity in place, funding for these and other higher education reforms could be better leveraged to promote employer participation, build access for Californians previously left out of higher education, and promote postsecondary and workforce transitions strategically and efficiently. Finally, a higher education coordinating entity could serve as a feedback conduit to the Legislature and governor, providing key insights in the execution of programs and changes needed to better serve our state. The budget act provides a key step in strengthening California’s already top-notch higher education system. The next step is the creation of a new higher education coordinating entity to ensure that these programs fulfill the vision set forth by the governor and the legislature.
1 The California Postsecondary Education Commission, which coordinated higher education in the state, was defunded in 2011