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The Year Ahead in Higher Education

Hans Johnson January 13, 2021
photo - Doe Library and Campanile on UC Berkeley Campus

In the past year, the pandemic and related recession have caused unprecedented disruptions to California’s colleges and universities. The year ahead will be one full of continued challenges. How can policymakers and higher education officials continue to capitalize on their recent successes?

photo - Hans Johnson

Prior to the pandemic, great strides had been made in improving educational attainment and putting a dent in the workforce skills gap. Both UC and CSU had enrolled more students, improved student success, and increased graduation rates. Reforms at the state’s community colleges had led to dramatic increases in the share of students successfully completing gateway courses in English and math, with tremendous reductions in inequitable access to these transfer-level courses. Because of strong state support, tuition and fees had not changed appreciably for ten years, and the share of students taking out loans was in decline. And the state was working with multiple institutions to build the framework for a new cradle to career educational data system.

Maintaining momentum should be the focus of the year ahead. Fiscal challenges remain, but as horrible as the pandemic has been, the rapid response and lessons learned might provide a bit of a silver lining. Key areas to watch include:

  • Fiscal relief for institutions and students. Colleges and students have received emergency aid from the federal government and the governor’s budget proposal provides some renewed funding for the state’s public colleges. Even so, fiscal problems remain, with lost revenues and increased expenses related to the pandemic. Measures to control costs should first and foremost be designed to limit the effects on student access and completion. New initiatives in the governor’s budget, such as dual admission, could provide cost effective ways for more students to earn a college degree.
  • Equitable access to UC and CSU. Among the 50 states, California ranks near the bottom in access to four-year colleges for recent high school graduates. In addition to opening up more slots for new students, improving the transfer pathway from community colleges could improve representation of low-income and underrepresented students at the state’s public and private universities. Ensuring that students have the resources they need—including access to technology—is vital in this time of online courses and services.
  • Student debt and financial aid reform. With a new administration in Washington DC, federal action to provide more student aid and eliminate at least some student debt seems likely. Ensuring that such actions are equitable and target low-income students and graduates is critical. California should not be penalized—by receiving less federal support—for providing more state aid to students and public colleges than other states.
  • Development of a longitudinal data system. California is on the verge of establishing a longitudinal student data system from pre–K to college and beyond. Other states have used their systems to more effectively and efficiently direct funding and develop policies to maximize student success. California can leverage the experience of these states to develop a system that delivers essential information to students, parents, institutions, and policymakers.
  • Career education. Vocational training that links students with employers in areas of strong labor market demand can help workers recover from the recession. The state’s community colleges provide valuable training in key areas, with programs in health providing some of the best returns. Community college CalWORKs students are more likely to succeed when they enroll in targeted support programs.

The availability of a vaccine provides hope that most colleges will be able to return to a semblance of normalcy in the fall, but some of the changes caused by the pandemic may have long-lasting deleterious effects—especially the interruptions to course-taking and enrollment. Other changes brought by the pandemic might be worth making more permanent. For example, effective online courses can offer students more flexibility and allow them to complete their academic goals in a timely manner.

In the coming year, higher education will continue to grapple with student and staff health, remote instruction and support services, and fiscal stability. Moreover, finding ways to better reflect the full diversity of California’s population will remain a critical concern, one that must be addressed if higher education is to meaningfully serve as a driver of educational and economic mobility. At the PPIC Higher Education Center, we are energized to help find innovative ways to address these challenges—and more—in the weeks and months ahead.

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