A major priority in California is to find ways to make college more affordable for our students. With the total cost of attendance rising dramatically across the state in recent years, students are facing significant issues with food and housing insecurity.  Two recent reports came out that recommend ways to expand the CalGrant program, as did a report about higher education capacity in California. Given that dollars to increase spending on higher education are fairly scarce, state policy conversations almost always weigh tradeoffs in investments. Thus, a common conversation in education policy circles is: which would be more effective—making additional investments in financial aid or providing higher allocations to colleges and universities to increase their capacity to enroll students. Invariably, the answer people come to is, “Do both.” This answer reflects an underlying truth—California needs both more financial aid to help students cover the substantial non-tuition costs of attending college, and more investment to increase the capacity of the California State University and University of California to serve the growing numbers of students who meet the requirements to enroll as freshmen or to transfer from a community college. But the answer is also an indicator that California lacks the information policymakers, education officials, and advocates would need to think through such questions and make informed policy choices.

Policymakers face such tradeoffs every day. Recent projections suggest that California’s current operating budget surpluses could turn to deficits in the next recession if additional ongoing spending commitments are made. And there are many competing needs and priorities in the state for any new dollars that might be available, including early education and affordable housing. The chances that both financial aid and university capacity will receive full investments appear slim. To make informed choices about how best to make investments in both priorities, policymakers would need answers to questions like the following:

  • Are students who receive CalGrants more likely to enroll in college and successfully complete a degree than similar students who don’t get the grants? Do CalGrants speed students’ time to degree, reduce student loan debt, improve academic performance, reduce equity gaps in college access and success, or have other beneficial effects? Is the impact of the grant larger for younger/first-time students or older/returning students; for students with different grade point averages in high school or college; for those at different levels of income or “expected family contribution”; or is the impact similar across student groups?
  • When the state funds higher education for more capacity, who benefits (in terms of the kinds of majors and the access provided to students by race/ethnicity, income, and geographic location)? What is the impact of expanding capacity on the number of students who graduate from college, in the context of recent increases in graduation rates, state workforce needs, and goals to reduce equity gaps in college attainment across regions and student populations?

Answers to such questions would help policymakers understand how best to target new resources for financial aid and additional capacity in our public universities. They could even help the state move toward a more strategic approach to higher education finance that aligns state appropriations, tuition, and financial aid policies toward the goal of more equitable student outcomes and increasing educational attainment.

California collects the student-level data needed to answer these questions, but they are held in different data systems at each higher education system office and at the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC). CSAC has detailed financial information on CalGrant applicants and recipients, but lacks data on students’ race/ethnicity and on their progress and outcomes in college. The higher education systems have detailed demographic data and information on students’ progress and outcomes. However, while they get some information from CSAC related to administering CalGrants for students who receive them, they do not have all the data needed to address these questions. These agencies can make data sharing agreements, but their staff capacity is limited, and finding the time and resources to prioritize research that addresses policy questions is difficult.

Fortunately, representatives from these (and other) agencies will soon begin public discussions about how to create a statewide longitudinal data system (SLDS) that would link existing student records across various data systems. This Cradle to Career Data Workgroup will make recommendations to the Legislature and the Administration about the structure and governance of such a system, with input from an advisory panel of educators, researchers, education advocates, and other stakeholders. In developing the governance structures for a SLDS, California should follow the lead of other states and ensure that there is sufficient capacity and expertise to use the cross-sector data to address important policy issues, by developing mechanisms for sharing de-identified student records with external researchers and having researchers within a state entity charged with answering such questions.

Policy research is only one valuable use of a SLDS—most other states already have such data systems and are also using them to provide students and parents with data to inform their college and career choices, and to supply educators with information needed to improve programs and curricula. But answering broad policy questions can help policymakers come to good decisions about how to invest public dollars to best support California’s students and meet the state’s workforce needs, and can ensure that all Californians see the broad social and economic benefits that come with a more educated populace.