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 with how they’d pay for their tuition there.
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, and her friends put on their caps and gowns and walked across the stage in May without her.
It was her friends who were defying the odds. Fewer than 20 percent of her classmates who entered San Jose State in 2014 finished in four years—less than half the national average.
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 now 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 plaguing higher education nationwide.
These include the longer-than-expected amount of 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 from what they learn; 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.
Not all of the initiatives have succeeded, nor is California the only state that’s trying them, often in the absence of reforms at the federal level. That program at San Jose State to help students make it to graduation by offering them small bursts of financial aid, for instance, was pioneered at Georgia State University.
But California is bucking a national trend: Most other states are continuing to reduce, not increase, their higher education budgets. With a higher education budget of $18.5 billion in 2019-2020, it has invested heavily in helping community college students transfer into four-year programs; spent more than $50 million on food banks and other programs to combat student hunger and homelessness; opened an online community college to serve people who are already working; and boosted state grants for students with children, among other initiatives.
Meanwhile, all but four states are spending less on higher education, per student, than they did in 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Those spending more? Hawaii, North Dakota, Wyoming—and California.
Some of what is happening here is inspiring similar reforms around the country. After California 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 a decision by 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 the reforms and the funding behind them are a projected shortage of workers with the necessary degrees to fill the jobs of the future; a public backlash in response to budget cuts made during the recession; and a concern that the state had been abandoning 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 top-ranked public research university and its largest and most affordable community college system. Today, there are 10 University of California campuses, 23 Cal State (CSU) campuses, and 115 community colleges.
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 eighth of graduating high school seniors, while the top third would be eligible to attend a CSU campus. 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 responded 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 tuition by nearly a third in a single year.
The price of undergraduate tuition and fees, when adjusted for inflation, has increased sixfold in the last 40 years at the University of California, and is 15 times higher at California State campuses, according to the independent California Budget and Policy Center.
Only one student in 10 graduates in four years at Cal State Los Angeles; that number’s fewer than one in five at nine of the system’s other campuses.
In a poll of likely voters by the Public Policy Institute of California, 53 percent said the higher education system was going in the wrong direction, and 56 percent that an education was growing less affordable.
Like many states, California is behind in its progress toward a goal of increasing the proportion of adults with a college or university credential, according to the Lumina Foundation, which tracks this; today, fewer than half of its adults have one, short of the target of 60 percent by 2030 set by the advocacy group the Campaign for College Opportunity. (Lumina is one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which co-produced this story.)
“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, or PPIC, gesturing toward the state Capitol.
At the same time, California’s student population has changed in ways that foreshadow national trends, becoming 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; 39 percent of residents are Hispanic, while 38 percent are white; 14 percent are Asian; and 6 percent are black. More than a quarter are immigrants.
Those demographics have allowed for experimentation with ways to encourage college-going by people from a variety of backgrounds.
Doing this isn’t easy, even here. Cristina Mora remembers feeling lost and adrift after leaving her close-knit Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles to enroll at UC Berkeley in 1999, “like there had been a clerical error, and I’d been admitted by mistake.” She didn’t attend 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 her 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 today 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 once was, and Deas is today. And if California can do that, perhaps the rest of the country can, too.
Helping Students Graduate
Some of what is happening in California leverages the state’s vast power of the purse. For starters, the state is trying to increase the number of transfer students—especially from its community colleges—accepted by both public and private universities.
Then-Gov. Jerry Brown threatened in 2017 both to withhold a $50 million allocation to the UC system unless it increased its share of transfer students, and to strip private colleges and universities of their eligibility for the $2 billion Cal Grant program unless they did a better job admitting transfers.
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. In addition, the private, nonprofit member institutions of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities have agreed to collectively enroll 3,000 transfer students annually by next year.
The state invested $75 million last year to try to raise those low CSU graduation rates and plans to spend another $75 million this year. The rates have already slowly started to improve, with 27.7 percent of CSU students now finishing in four years, up from 19 percent in 2015. (The most recent available national average is 42 percent, the U.S. Department of Education says.)
Some of that extra money has gone toward adding sections of courses that were filling up too fast. Not getting into the classes he needs is a big fear for student 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. “If not, I’ll be taking summer classes to be sure I am.”
San Jose State has also added 30 new advisers in the last three years, a university spokeswoman said. Data analysis is being used to pinpoint bottlenecks, such as those overcrowded courses. The “Spartan 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. The university says that 70 percent of recipients have graduated.
Another effective way of speeding students toward degrees is by eliminating noncredit remedial courses, which require them to repeat subjects such as algebra and English. More than four in 10 college students across the country end up in remedial—also called “developmental”—classes. That costs students $1.3 billion a year, according to the Center for American Progress, and many simply give up.
In California, 80 percent of community college students were being sent to remedial courses in English or math, and only 16 percent of them earned a certificate or associate degree within six years, according to the PPIC.
In response, in 2017, California’s community colleges began putting less-well-prepared students into credit-bearing introductory courses with extra tutoring. The CSU system, too, started doing this last year, and now also funnels students with low high school grades or standardized test scores into special preparation programs in the summer before their freshman years.
Though some faculty members have objected to the changes, early studies suggest they’ve led to big improvements: 63 percent of community college students who went directly into transfer-level English composition courses with tutoring successfully completed them, compared to 32 percent who went to remediation.
Costs Outside the Classroom
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 a nearby 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 bicycle with a custom trailer 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 reached staggering heights. The goal: to ease students’ stress about food and shelter so they can focus on their studies.
Researchers have documented widespread food and housing insecurity among students across the country, and the purchasing power of the federal Pell Grant, which can help cover living costs, is at a historic low. California students spend an average of $2,020 a month, or $18,180 per nine-month academic year, on food, housing, books, supplies and transportation, a survey released in September by the California Student Aid Commission, or CSAC, found.
California is well-equipped 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 his or her tuition.
While hundreds of thousands of students still miss out on the grants each year because they took time off before college, this tradition of comparatively generous tuition assistance 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.
The California Assembly passed a bill this year that would have made it easier for all students with financial need to access Cal Grants and tied the amount to their full cost of attendance. Though the Senate left the measure stranded in its Education Committee because of concerns about the price, its authors, the governor’s office and higher education advocates say that they are discussing how to move forward on another version in the next session.
Given California’s size and diversity, Ajose said she hopes the solution they come up with can serve as a model for the rest of the country.
“Just as California’s student population is becoming more diverse, that’s not the time to disinvest in higher education,” she said. “That’s the time to double down on investment in higher education, if we really care about equity.”
California has thrown a lot of other ideas at making college more affordable.
The California State system and some UC campuses have substituted cheaper digital books and open-source materials for textbooks, for example, which the CSAC found cost California students $1,080 a year.
The CSAC itself last year began to address the complex process of applying for financial aid, which research shows makes prospective students less likely to enroll in college in the first place, by creating a more user-friendly website and making it easier to compare the costs of different schools.
In a pilot program by the California Policy Lab, redesigning and simplifying letters sent to 130,000 high school students about Cal Grants made them 9 percent more likely to register for the online Cal Grant system by June of their senior years. “That’s a lot of new students able to attend college and improve their career options,” said the lab’s executive director, Evan White.
Many campuses are opening food pantries like the one at UC Berkeley, holding outreach fairs to sign up students for the state’s version of the federal food stamp program, or starting emergency housing programs—all backed by that more than $50 million in this year’s state budget to help deal with student hunger and homelessness.
Those funds came after students packed legislative hearings over the past two years to testify about rising rents and having to work 30 hours a week 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 politicians 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 is trying to help older students, too, a challenge also facing the rest of the country. More than 35 million Americans over the age of 25 have some college credits but never got degrees, the Census Bureau says; 29 percent of undergraduate and 76 percent of graduate students are 25 or older, the U.S. Department of Education reports. But many juggle families and jobs, and aren’t eligible for state financial aid.
This year, Gov. Newsom successfully pushed 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.
Legislators also filed several bills to tighten regulation of for-profit colleges and universities, which often serve older, low-income students. One would have required these schools to prove that the educations for which they were charging graduates resulted in jobs that paid enough to justify the cost—similar to the Obama-era “gainful employment” rule that has been blocked at the federal level by the Trump administration—or lose their access to state financial aid.
That proposal, which was introduced by Chiu, was beaten back by industry lobbying, but, in a compromise, the state will begin to collect information on graduates’ income and debt, by institution, so that consumers can make better-informed choices about which programs will and will not pay off.
“We’ll have a pretty good sense of how many schools are failing our students and exactly who they are. We can then decide what the consequences of that should be,” Chiu said.
Several other measures to crack down on for-profit schools stalled, thanks in part to the for-profit colleges’ aggressive lobbying campaign. But advocates say they were only the first salvos in an ongoing battle.
“In large part, it’s because of the federal retreat on oversight of for-profit colleges that California lawmakers are seeing a need to elevate the state’s attention” to it, said Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
With the entire structure of for-profit college oversight in California up for renewal next year, said Shireman, he expects that some of these proposals will be raised again. That will continue to put the state in direct opposition to the Trump administration on higher education regulation, as it is on many other issues.
Few clashes are as pitched as the fight over who gets to decide whether veterans in California can use their GI Bill benefits to attend for-profit Ashford University, which the state’s attorney general has accused in an ongoing lawsuit of misleading students, including veterans.
That tug of war began when the state stepped in to block veterans who enrolled at Ashford from receiving taxpayer-funded support. In response, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in September stripped authority from the state veterans education agency to determine veterans’ benefits eligibility there.
Experimentation at Scale
California is not the only state trying to improve the success rates of its students, or to make policy in the absence of federal action; amid the partisan bickering in Washington, D.C., 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. Currently, 30 percent of undergraduates or aspiring undergraduates never fill out this form, forgoing the chance to receive financial aid; a third 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 beginning in 2022, and universities and colleges there have already started getting rid of them.
Many states have resorted to enforcement actions, lawsuits and new laws to crack down on for-profit colleges and universities and loan-servicing companies they say cheat or mislead students.
At the federal level, a House bill—introduced by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California—would create a pilot program to help community colleges pay for free meals for students who can’t afford to buy food.
But few other states are trying as many reforms at once as California, or can do so at such scale; its financial aid program is the nation’s biggest, and its community colleges alone have a collective enrollment of 2.1 million.
California still has to figure out how to cope with the challenges that come with that scale. Each year, tens of thousands of qualified applicants are turned away from UC and CSU campuses due to lack of space.
But California’s size will also continue to make it a laboratory for innovation, Kevin Cook, associate director of the PPIC Higher Education Center, said.
“There’s a lot of interest from large funders,” he said. “Because of the size of the state, if you can make something work here, it will probably work anywhere else.”
This story about California higher education was produced by CalMatters, a nonprofit news venture covering California policy and politics, and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This story also appeared in CalMatters, The Hechinger Report and NBC News.