Among the devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis is the expected impact on California’s state budget, as revenues decline with shrinking financial markets and expenditures increase to cover unemployment claims and other vital government services. As prior economic contractions have demonstrated, this situation portends a challenging time ahead for higher education. The Great Recession brought significant cuts in state appropriations to the University of California (UC), California State University (CSU), and California Community Colleges (CCC). The UC and CSU replaced some of their lost revenue by raising tuition substantially, while the CCC cut class sections dramatically, making higher education both less affordable and less accessible at a time that the workforce skills gap was growing. State funding for higher education in California took a decade to fully recover.

Significant increases in tuition may not be an option in dealing with the current economic crisis, with students and families in California facing unprecedented increases in unemployment, and growing concerns about the significant non-tuition costs of attending college. Federal relief for colleges and universities will not fully meet the scale of the needs. The state and its public higher education systems will need to support colleges and universities in finding operational efficiencies through changes to statewide policies and processes. Over the last several years, California’s public higher education systems have successfully implemented significant reforms to increase student access and success, including a graduation initiative in the CSU, the elimination of traditional remediation at CSU and CCC, the expansion of transfer pathways to UC, and efforts to streamline program pathways in community colleges. Maintaining this momentum and identifying other opportunities for structural changes in higher education will be critical to serving California’s students, many of whom are from populations most impacted by the dual health and economic catastrophes.

In particular, new high school graduatesdisplaced workers, and employers may increasingly look to the CCC to produce the skilled workforce that can support a faster economic recovery. In some of our past work on career education in the CCC, we identified a number of opportunities for changes to state policies and regulations that could help colleges be more responsive to the needs of both students and the workforce.[1] Many of the suggested changes have already been made through the CCC’s Strong Workforce Program and other reforms, but opportunities remain. Some examples include:

  • Removing the requirement that a program belong to a single college. Allowing programs to be developed and owned by a district or a consortium of colleges could maximize student access to programs of breadth and quality, incentivize collaboration across colleges, and limit the incidence of individual colleges stretching too thin to offer programs for which they lack critical mass of faculty and facilities.
  • Developing statewide standards and frameworks for career programs for optional, and incentivized, college use. While some variation in similar programs across colleges is reasonable, excessive variation can make it difficult for students and employers to understand the value of credentials. Reducing the variability, while ensuring programs are stackable and closely aligned with labor market needs, could help both students and employers understand expected learning outcomes and the value of particular certificates and degrees, and could facilitate students’ progress as they move from one college or region to another.
  • Reviewing the Chancellor’s Office’s approval of associate degrees to help colleges streamline their offerings. Many colleges offer both an Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) and a non-ADT associate of arts (AA) or associate of science (AS) degree in the same discipline, reducing efficiency in the curriculum and causing unnecessary confusion for students. Recasting the non-transfer AA/AS degrees to make them more explicitly aimed at preparation for employment could facilitate students’ choices and help employers understand the value of CCC credentials.
  • Developing incentives – financial and otherwise – to encourage colleges to work together to share programs, align curriculum, consolidate industry and employer engagement activities, and share administrative duties for work-based learning. Such collaboration could expand and deepen partnerships with industry across California’s diverse regions.

The prospect of another period of budget cuts to California higher education is daunting, particularly given the potential scale of the problem and concerns about how to maintain recent advancement toward meaningful reforms to support student progress and outcomes. Assessing current policies and practices with an eye toward better serving our students, communities, and regional economies will be critically important.

[1] The referenced work was published when EdInsights was known as the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy (IHELP).