Gov. Gavin Newsom discussed his revised 2019-2020 state budget during a news conference in May. The budget included expanding the number of available competitive Cal Grants, fulfilling one of Newsom's campaign pledges. (Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP, via EdSource)

With investments in financial aid and more money for California’s university systems, Gov. Gavin Newsom fulfilled key campaign pledges on higher education in his first year in office, experts and advocates say.

On the campaign trail in 2018, Newsom said he would expand financial aid by growing the number of Cal Grants available to older students — known as competitive Cal Grants — and providing two years of tuition-free community college.

Newsom and the Legislature in 2019 increased the number of available competitive Cal Grants while also giving community colleges the option of offering two tuition-free years by increasing funding for the California College Promise. Newsom also kept his promise to avoid tuition hikes for the California State University and University of California systems by increasing funding for each system.

Left unfulfilled in 2019 was significant reform of the state’s financial aid system to better help students cover non-tuition costs, such as housing and food. Without committing to a specific plan, Newsom said on the campaign trail that he wanted to ensure that no student lacks proper housing or food and that he would “provide the resources necessary to address these crises.”

In his first budget message, Newsom expressed support for helping students with living costs. He did include $40 million in this year’s state budget for emergency housing costs for college students at the University of California and California State University, but has not yet signed on to other legislative proposals that would significantly increase state aid to cover non-tuition costs.

On another front, Newsom in 2019 launched an advisory board of education leaders as well as business and labor leaders who will meet behind closed doors and advise him on higher education issues such as college access, success and costs.

The entity, called the Council for Post-Secondary Education, does not have the powers or resources of a statewide coordinating agency that Newsom said during his campaign he hopes to launch.

But the fact that the council exists has stirred hope that it may grow into or be replaced by a formal state-wide coordinating panel for higher education with more authority and resources along the lines of what Newsom talked about during his campaign. That panel, possibly similar to the former California Postsecondary Education Commission, would presumably have a budget and staff.

Higher education experts such as Tatiana Melguizo, an associate professor of higher education at the USC Rossier School of Education, see the creation of the Council for Post-Secondary Education as consistent with Newsom’s goal of creating better coordination among California’s higher education systems and as an encouraging step toward the revival of a commission with more powers.

Regarding financial aid, experts and activists say they expect Newsom and the Legislature in 2020 to continue to prioritize expanding aid, particularly by working to help students cover non-tuition costs, such as housing, food and transportation.

The governor’s actions on higher education affect more than 2.5 million students enrolled across the state’s 115 community colleges, 23 CSU campuses and 10 UC campuses.

“I think much of what [Newsom] did was consistent with the way he campaigned. Obviously, you don’t fulfill all the campaign promises in one year. But I think very important progress was made on critical, critical pieces,” said Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group that advocates for college affordability and access.

The governor’s first budget increased the number of available competitive Cal Grants from 25,750 to 41,000, giving older students expanded access to financial aid. Those grants are available to students who do not qualify for entitlement Cal Grants, which are guaranteed to students who meet GPA and income requirements and who apply for college within a year after graduating from high school. They are also available to community college transfers.

Typically, competitive Cal Grants are available to students entering college more than a year after graduating from high school and community college transfer students who are 28 or older.

The 41,000 competitive Cal Grants that are now available fall well short of the more than 300,000 students who are eligible for those awards. Still, the additional 15,000 grants included in the 2019 budget represented the largest-ever increase in the number of those grants.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, said the expansion of competitive Cal Grants was “a big deal because those are the nontraditional students that right now have crazy competition trying to compete for Cal Grants.”

The budget also provided $85 million for the California College Promiseplan. That doubled the 2018 budget’s funding and gave community college campuses the option of providing first-time, full-time students with two tuition-free years of community college. Colleges also have the option of using that funding for other purposes, such as giving students grants to help cover non-tuition costs.

For the UC and CSU systems, Newsom succeeded in keeping tuition flat, thanks to a budget that included an extra $194 million in funding for the UC system and an additional $400 million for CSU. Those increases also funded enrollment of nearly 5,000 additional UC undergraduates and 10,000 more full-time CSU undergraduates.

“In those areas, I think he definitely kicked off the first year in a really promising way,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, referring to the additional investments in financial aid and increased funding for CSU and UC. The Campaign for College Opportunity is an advocacy group that works to increase access to higher education in California.

Still waiting to be addressed entering 2020 is reforming financial aid to help more students cover non-tuition costs, which Newsom has indicated he hopes to accomplish. However, he has not backed any specific plan or legislation, such as SB 291, which would create the California Community College Student Financial Aid Program. The program would help students cover those non-tuition costs that contribute to the total cost of attendance, paving a path for debt-free college. The 2019 budget did not include funding for that bill.

Another major reform bill, AB 1314, also was not funded. That bill would reform the Cal Grant system by eliminating eligibility barriers, such as GPA and age requirements, and would change the Cal Grant program to focus on the total cost of attendance.

Experts say they expect Newsom and lawmakers in 2020 to further expand financial aid, even if they can’t immediately succeed in creating wholesale reform.

A work group convened by the California Student Aid Commission is expected this month to make recommendations to Newsom and the Legislature for reforming the Cal Grant system in a cost-effective manner, said David O’Brien, the commission’s director of government affairs. The work group includes representatives from the CSU, UC and community college systems as well as from various nonprofit groups.

Siqueiros said the “big question” entering 2020 is whether significant steps will be taken toward financial aid reform.

“I think obviously, we’re all concerned about affordability and ensuring that there is aid for students to be able to buy books and have stable housing and not be hungry,” she added.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Michael Burke