All eyes on California as ‘a laboratory for innovation’ in higher education

At a time when most states are cutting their higher education budgets, California is stepping up its investment—and seeking creative solutions to some of the thorniest challenges to degree attainment. Given its scale and willingness to experiment, California is attracting widespread attention for programs that help adult learners who are already working, increasing student transfer rates, removing noncredit developmental courses, and investing in food banks and emergency housing funds, The Hechinger Report writes.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only California, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Wyoming are spending more on higher education per student than they did in 2008. California’s $18.5 billion budget funds the nation’s top-ranked public research university, its largest financial aid program, and its most affordable community college system. The state is home to 115 community colleges serving 2.1 million students, 10 University of California campuses, and 23 Cal State (CSU) campuses.

Related: State cuts to higher ed funding taking toll on affordability, access >

Investing in student support and success

Among its efforts to boost its college attainment rate—currently 49.1 percent—California has invested heavily to increase the number of community college student transfers to four-year institutions. In 2017, for instance, Governor Jerry Brown threatened to withhold $50 million from the UC system and to strip private institutions of their eligibility for the $2 billion Cal Grant program—a statewide scholarship available to every low-income student who meets certain requirements—unless they increased their transfer rates.

Schools like San Jose State University also are increasing graduation rates by offering $1,500 completion grants to students who are within two semesters of graduating and need extra financial support. To reduce delays that can derail students’ education, California colleges have added sections to courses that are filling up too quickly, and have replaced some noncredit remedial courses that require students to repeat subjects like algebra and English with special summer preparation programs or credit-bearing introductory courses and extra tutoring. Studies show that community college students who took transfer-level English composition courses with tutoring had almost double the completion rates of those who went to remediation. 

The California State system and some UC campuses are replacing textbooks with digital books and open-source materials. And efforts by the California Policy Lab to simplify and redesign letters to high schoolers about Cal Grants have increased the likelihood of registering for the grant by 9 percent. 

According to a recent survey from the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC), students are spending an average of $2,020 a month on food, housing, books, supplies, and transportation. With the help of a $50 million state investment to counter student hunger and homelessness, campuses statewide are opening food pantries, assisting students in signing up for food stamps, and launching emergency housing programs. 

Meanwhile, targeting older students, California launched an online community college and—as of earlier this year—provides some funding for nontuition expenses of students who are parents of dependent children. 

National implications

While California isn’t the only state attempting to address these challenges, “few other states are trying as many reforms at once,” writes The Hechinger Report. Its size “make[s] it a laboratory for innovation, says Kevin Cooke, associate director of the Public Policy Institute of California Higher Education Center said. 

The state’s diversity also facilitates efforts to explore and improve college attainment among students from a variety of backgrounds. Changes in California’s student population—growing ethnic diversity, larger numbers of first-generation and low-income students—portend national trends and draw attention from other states planning reforms. “If you can make something work here, it will probably work anywhere else,” Cooke says.

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