In summary

California’s 85 nonprofit colleges and universities award 20% of all undergraduate degrees and more than 50% of graduate degrees statewide.

By Kristen Soares, Devorah Lieberman and Ann McElaney-Johnson, Special to CalMatters

Kristen Soares is president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, kristen.soares@aiccu.edu. Devorah Lieberman is president of University of La Verne, dlieberman@laverne.edu. Ann McElaney-Johnson is president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, amcelaney@msmu.edu. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

The COVID-19 pandemic is fundamentally changing the way many industries and institutions operate – including higher education. 

In many cases, these changes will be for the better even if they don’t seem that way right now. We must be cautious about the lessons we draw from these first few weeks of disruption and displacement, so we don’t compromise one of the best investments in our future: California’s independent, nonprofit colleges and universities.

Last month, the Los Angeles Times called for California to reimagine its universities on a smaller scale and referenced the utilitarian campuses of Europe, where most students live at home and the halls of academia are more like office parks. It is a stripped-down future for students who the Times claims “don’t get as much educational bang for the dollar as they should.” We couldn’t disagree more.

California’s 85 nonprofit colleges and universities award 20% of all undergraduate degrees and more than 50% of graduate degrees statewide. But those numbers don’t tell the full story. At campuses like Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles and the University of La Verne, about half the students are the first in their family to attend college. More than 70% are people of color.

And bang for the buck? A full 98% of first-time students at both universities receive financial aid, and rather than being saddled with debt, they are equipped for the future. 

The University of La Verne is ranked fourth in the nation for social mobility by U.S. News & World Report. Mount Saint Mary’s was ranked by the New York Times as having the highest economic mobility rating of any private school in the country: 43 percent of its students can expect to move up to two income levels based on their university education.

Both universities have high proportions of Pell Grant recipients, which go to students with household income below $20,000. Still, these students graduate at the same rate as their non-Pell classmates.

The idea that college is only for the rich is not only false – it is dangerous to the future of a state that already has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Access to higher education and specialized training is crucial.

Independent, nonprofit schools like Mount Saint Mary’s and the University of La Verne are better positioned to graduate more low-income students from marginalized communities throughout California compared to their public counterparts. They may not have the recognition of big-name campuses, but California’s nonprofit colleges and universities make an outsized contribution to the state’s economy and workforce.

University campuses reflect an educational culture that builds on the past to prepare for the future. They bring together young minds eager to learn with scholars just as eager to share. Perhaps an office park-like campus can accomplish the same objective, but the campuses are already here and built and, for the most part, paid for. And by connecting students and faculty in one place often steeped with history reinforces the unique experience of higher education. 

Although we have been forced to rely exclusively on online and remote learning during stay-at-home orders, our students and faculty desperately want to return to our campuses as soon as possible.

Campuses also reflect the unique histories and values of the universities. Lumping all colleges and universities together as monolithic “universities” that should be replaced by a more “stripped-down” model fails to capture the diversity that mirrors our state. Many of these independent institutions dedicate large portions of their operating budgets to financial aid in order to support low-income students and help them graduate at higher than national averages.

Since 1955 independent institutions have provided our own institutional grant aid to support students while the state matched this with the Cal Grant award – the state’s need-based aid for low-income students. This partnership has created regional access and made college more affordable for some of our most talented, diverse students that might otherwise slip through the cracks. 

However, for the last two decades, Cal Grant students attending the independent sector have only seen cuts to this program and the recent May Revision to the state budget continues this disinvestment in California students by cutting an additional $1,000 from the award. We understand that the state faces immense budgetary challenges but now is not the time to cut need-based financial aid, while students and their families are facing so much economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These students are the future workforce that the state will need to help lead us out of this recession.

Our institutions not only create jobs but connect students with mentors and teach them how to become future leaders in all areas of our economy. California’s dynamism and its concentration of independent, nonprofit colleges and institutions is no coincidence. With continued investment in these jewels of our state, we can keep it that way.

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Kristen Soares is president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, kristen.soares@aiccu.edu. Devorah Lieberman is president of University of La Verne, dlieberman@laverne.edu. Ann McElaney-Johnson is president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, amcelaney@msmu.edu. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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