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Will California colleges return to normal after the coronavirus pandemic? Lande Ajose hopes not.

The pandemic forced postsecondary institutions into triage mode and left working-class students with difficult decisions. It also opened the door for advocates like Ajose, a higher ed policy advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom who leads the state’s Council for Postsecondary Education, to develop a vision for the future of higher education that could be a model for the rest of the country — if it can get past the obstacles in its path to implementation.

Aiming to make the public higher education landscape in the state more equitable and inclusive for students of all backgrounds over the next decade, the document laying out this vision has a number of recommendations. Among them: centralize the college application process, bolster support for students as they transition from high school to postsecondary programs, standardize course numbers across institutions, and help connect students with resources to address digital connectivity issues, and food and housing insecurity.

“We have a system designed for 100 years ago, and 100 years ago we had a very different population of students,” said Ajose, who leads the Recovery with Equity task force, authors of the report. “We had very few women, we had very few people of color. And that’s who our system was designed for.”

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Monica Lozano, president of the College Futures Foundation and member of the task force, said the goal is a system that caters to the needs and identities of students and provides clear pathways to educational success and good jobs.

“How do you use this as an opportunity to both reimagine and then reinvent public higher education systems in the state of California for Black and brown students, low income students?” she said.

Ajose said the system needs to do a better job of graduating students who are ready to hit the ground running, especially in the state’s flourishing STEM and arts and entertainment fields.

To do that, she said, students need to be relieved of the stress of meeting their basic needs, which distracts them from achieving success. If they’re economically eligible to receive food, housing or transportation assistance, Ajose said those resources should be easily accessible to them.

“How do you use this as an opportunity to both reimagine and then reinvent public higher education systems in the state of California for Black and brown students, low income students?”

Monica Lozano, president, College Futures Foundation and task force member

But removing this barrier for students and implementing the other 10 recommendations is likely to be an uphill battle. In a field of nearly 150 public community colleges and universities, it’s impossible to legislate a sense of belonging for students from historically marginalized groups. And those aspects of the plan that require policy change or budget items will have to wait until next year, because of the legislative and budget calendar.

The taskforce began their work in August and the plan was published Feb. 18, about a month after Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced the proposed budget and the day before the deadline for state lawmakers to introduce new bills.

Newsom included one-time funding to meet students’ basic needs for each of the public higher education segments in the state, including $100 million for community colleges and $15 million each for the California State University system and the University of California system. To ensure technological connection and support mental health needs of students, Newsom allocated $30 million for community colleges, and $15 million for each of the CSU and UC systems.

If approved by the legislature, the budget would be enacted next month.

Related: OPINION: Many college students are going hungry

California Assemblymember Marc Berman, a Democrat from the Bay Area, is trying to secure an additional, recurring allotment of $30 million to fund a basic needs center and coordinator on every community college campus in the state by July 2022.

“Let’s not have it so that they have to fill out five different applications to get access to different types of resources and talk to four different people in five different offices,” Berman said. “So many students just get overwhelmed and discouraged just by that process and then they say, ‘forget it,’ and they drop out of school. So, let’s make it as easy as possible for them, and let’s create some accountability on the administrative side.”

The proposal is one of three Berman had already been working on when the taskforce report was released. One bill would simplify the transfer process and another would begin to standardize student-facing course numbers for community college general education courses. The bills have until Sept. 10 to pass.

“We’re often promised programs or often promised things, and then nothing comes of it, they fall by the wayside. It’s going to be that accountability aspect that’s really going to be the secret sauce to this program.” 

Frederick Jones, Cal State San Bernardino student

Frederick Jones, a third-year student at California State University, San Bernardino, was not on the task force, but said he’s cautiously optimistic about the report. He wants to keep his eye on the equity-based, anti-racism recommendations.

The plan proposes innovative, inclusive hiring practices to diversify faculty and better data collection as two strategies to help ensure that by 2030 students of all backgrounds feel valued and supported, and faculty are able to create courses that build on their experiences and needs and teach them with cultural competence.

“We’re often promised programs or often promised things, and then nothing comes of it, they fall by the wayside,” said Jones, who also works in outreach at San Bernardino Valley College. “It’s going to be that accountability aspect that’s really going to be the secret sauce to this program.”

Still, he said, he has hope for results because the report clearly states how the task force listened to the experiences of students and reflected them in the report.

“And when you say ‘listen,’ that is an emotional connection,” Jones said. “Kids, students, older people that are going back to school — they need to be heard.”

Related: Why so few students transferring from community college to university

Michael Wiafe, a graduate student at Berkeley who served on the task force, said the entire higher education community should mobilize to create momentum for the recommendations immediately, rather than waiting to make requests for the next state budget or appealing to legislators for future sessions.

Some changes need government or university systems’ action, Wiafe said, but “fostering inclusive environments, that is on everybody.”

“The way I like to think about it is, keep it in mind as the North Star of what we’re doing, and start to make campus plans to try to meet some of these goals.”

Michael Wiafe, graduate student, University of California Berkeley and task force member

For example, institutions might consider funneling more resources to food and housing insecurity and multicultural centers on campuses right away, or reinforcing staff in relevant departments. Maybe students need better programming to “teach how to be in community with each other,” he said.

“The way I like to think about it is, keep it in mind as the North Star of what we’re doing, and start to make campus plans to try to meet some of these goals,” Wiafe said of the task force report.

Jamienne Studley, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting agency, said she expects the implementation of the plan to be a “one-thing-in-front-of-the-other” process.

“It would help if we in the field could see those steps, could know how to participate and could understand what the targets were,” Studley said. “My bet is that that’s coming soon.”

This story about California’s higher education equity plan was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

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