California Covid-19 recovery plan envisions more equity

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Delece Smith-Barrow

By Olivia Sanchez

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 higher education landscape in the state more equitable and inclusive for students of all backgrounds over the next decade, the document laying out the 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 led the Recovery with Equity task force. “We had very few women, we had very few people of color. And that’s who our system was designed for.”
 
The redesigned system she’s calling for would account not only for the radically more diverse California population, but also for the evolving workforce. She thinks the system could 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.
 
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 community colleges and universities, you can’t 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 task force began its work in August and the plan was published Feb. 18, about a month after Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced his 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.
 
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 task force 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.
 
Michael Wiafe, a graduate student at Berkley 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.”
 
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.
 

Send story ideas and news tips to osanchez@hechingerreport.org. Tweet at @oliviarsanchez. Read high-quality news about innovation and inequality in education at The Hechinger Report.

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