Proposed State Budget Increases Fail to Address Critical Issues in Higher Education

by Taylor Myers

Policy and Research Analysis

On January 10, 2018, Governor Brown released his final budget proposal, a $131.7 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year. The proposal earmarks $18.5 billion in General Fund appropriations for higher education. Following its release, California Competes published an initial analysis of the new budget which highlighted an expansion of investments in full-time student success and innovations targeted at the millions of workers who lack a college credential. While there are many reasons to be optimistic about the proposal, as a policy blueprint, it fails to address several critical issues for improving student access and success across the state:

1. Investing in college completion is critical to promote degree attainment and close the degree gap.

California needs 2.4 million more credentials and degrees by 2025 to remain economically competitive and closing this gap requires every segment to significantly increase degree attainment. The state has historically been inconsistent with imposing enrollment goals on CSU and UC, and has never imposed a strict completion or attainment goal on the segments. This year is no different—the Governor’s budget does not include any enrollment growth or completion rate expectations for either the UC or CSU.

2. Strong policies to support on-time completion and transfer should support the cost of non-tuition expenses while students attend full-time.

Research suggests that full time students who work between five and ten hours per week are less likely to see their academic performance impaired by their jobs than students who work more than 20 hours per week. However, many students need to work longer hours to cover living expenses. Incentive programs that seek to increase full-time attendance, like the proposed consolidated grant for full-time Community College students, should consider the difficult decisions students face when deciding between academics and work. The California College Promise may address this challenge for students who are eligible for regional college promise programs; regions may use their local programs to support students for a second year of full-time attendance, or to cover non-tuition costs. For students who do not qualify for the California College Promise, or who are not additionally covered by a regional college promise program, a solution has yet to be offered.

3. California’s competitive economy depends on increasing degree attainment, which can’t happen without statewide cross-segmental coordination and aligned data practices.

This spending plan doesn’t address the need for statewide, cross-segmental coordination of higher education systems. Several legislative attempts to create one have been introduced, including the current measure AB 1936, authored by Assembly Members Low and Eggman. Over the last several months, policymakers have shown interest in revisiting the Master Plan for Higher Education and in considering more aligned goals for the state’s public higher education segments. But despite demonstrated enthusiasm from policymakers, the budget does not address the need for statewide coordination.

Nor does it include any impactful provisions for data collection and sharing – it leaves institutions to continue to serve as gatekeepers and stewards of information on student and programmatic outcomes. Currently, state policymakers and researchers have no way of efficiently and robustly evaluating the impacts of the state’s higher education investments. California desperately needs a statewide longitudinal data system to evaluate the impacts of the myriad of programs receiving funds from the state.

As they continue to refine the state’s 2018-2019 higher education budget, policymakers should consider the efficacy of the policy changes proposed in the current budget in the absence of the critical components discussed above. Addressing the needs of California’s diverse student population and ensuring equity in educational attainment and economic opportunities requires significant investment from the state in meaningful segmental or institutional goals, stronger higher education finance policies, intentional cross-segmental coordination, and a robust longitudinal student data system.

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How Better Data Can Help Colleges Re-engage Those Who Leave Without a Degree

“Every number is a student, and every student has a story.”

Nele Hempel-Lamer, director of the CSU’s new Certificate Program in Student Success Analytics, offered this insight in her welcoming remarks at a recent convening at which we were invited to speak. It was an important reminder to those in the room who were starting on a pilot program to learn new skills in using predictive analytics to better serve students that the data they are looking at have a rich context that surrounds them. As the faculty and staff members from CSU East Bay and San Francisco State discussed current practices and issues in using student data, it was clear that there is a lot of innovation happening on the ground as well as a lot of room for improvement in the quality and breadth of the data that are collected.

Whichever way you choose to look at the data, there is a large population of adults that are ripe for outreach to be brought back into the fold of higher education…

As we discussed where California stands in closing the degree gap and what role the CSU specifically has in closing that gap, we looked at the large number of Californians in the workforce who have not completed college. There are many ways that this number can be cut: 2.5 million Californians aged 25-34 are in the workforce with only a high school diploma. 5.6 million adults over the age of 25 started college but never finished. Whichever way you choose to look at the data, there is a large population of adults that are ripe for outreach to be brought back into the fold of higher education, if they are going to keep pace with the increasing demand for degrees and credentials in California’s economy.

Lande Ajose presenting at CSU East Bay on February 2, 2018

Participants in the room gasped at these data. They asked very insightful questions about how we track the students who have left college before completing, what the mechanisms are for letting them know that they only need a few more classes to complete a degree, or that they may have already completed a degree and just need to declare it. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to their questions. The reality is that our data systems currently make it difficult to track students when they move across institutional boundaries. When a student leaves a CSU and then re-enrolls for a semester at a community college but leaves again just short of completing an associate’s degree, there is not a system for the institutions to combine their records to complete a degree audit, and it’s not clear who would be responsible for reaching out to the student to invite them back.

This seemingly simple dilemma highlights the need for three of California Competes’ policy priorities.

First, we need strategies for re-engaging students with some college but no degree and helping them toward completion. We could close a significant portion of the degree and credential gap by helping them toward completion. Second, we need an integrated data system that spans all of California’s higher education system. Finally, none of these strategies or data systems will be possible without a coordinating entity that spans all three segments of California’s higher education system.

Moving policy on all of three of these fronts can ensure that there are systems and processes in place to empower faculty and staff to have and utilize the data they need to create more positive stories behind their data.