In summary

Canceling administrative fees and penalties at state’s colleges and universities would remove stumbling blocks for vulnerable students.

By Su Jin Gatlin Jez, Special to CalMatters

Su Jin Gatlin Jez is executive director of California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy,  jez@californiacompetes.org.

The state’s staggering budget surplus and historic unemployment rates illustrate the split between California’s haves and have-nots: A $76 billion chasm separates wealthy elites from underpaid workers. Vulnerable Californians were hit hard by the pandemic, and our colleges and universities must step up to help bridge this divide, especially for students forced to pause their education. 

Armed with more funding from the budget surplus, higher education institutions should roll out the red carpet for a new wave of students — out-of-work Californians, underpaid essential workers, and anyone else who had to “stop out” of postsecondary education. We need to make higher education more flexible and feasible for the millions of Californians who now have the promise of new college funding on the horizon.

California Competes research reveals the distinct challenges facing students who leave college before graduating. These barriers are shortcomings of colleges and universities, not students — and thoughtful policy can ensure their futures in higher education and in careers beyond. 

Colleges must examine how long-standing policies unintentionally limit access and, ultimately, success. For instance, a small library fine can be all it takes to put some students off college indefinitely when it delays their receiving credits or prevents continued enrollment. Many colleges already have written these and other administrative debts off their books, but they still hold students accountable with too-high stakes for repaying them.

Canceling these debts obviously helps students, but colleges and universities also have much to gain. When Wayne State University in Detroit canceled outstanding balances for students who had stopped out, it gained $200,000 in net revenue during the first seven months of the program, thanks to increased enrollment — and saw graduations rise, too.

Higher education has other ways to be flexible, such as with enrollment on-ramps. Students usually have limited chances to begin college each year; most University of California campuses offer only one enrollment option in the fall, and California community colleges typically have two to four enrollment points. If applicants are ready to begin in March, they will wait until June to actually enroll. Forcing students to wait up to a year from application to enrollment in some cases discourages potential graduates from re-enrolling or enrolling in the first place.

The Accelerated College Education program at Shasta College has had success by making these and other student-centered changes. It also helps students earn credit for college-level learning outside the classroom and move more quickly toward degree completion with additional counseling, shorter terms and predictable course offerings.

California’s economic and equity prospects are grim if we ignore these trends and opportunities and leave so many high school graduates behind. With a median personal income of $26,359, adults ages 25 to 54 with a high school diploma but no associate’s or bachelor’s degree earn less than half of what college graduates do, often in lower-paying service sector and production jobs, and are more likely to be unemployed. Most of these potential graduates live in urban regions, and they comprise 71% of Latinx Californians and 61% of Black Californians. Rural areas such as the Central Sierra, Northern California and the Upper Sacramento Valley have much higher concentrations and far fewer postsecondary options.

When businesses grow, they bolster communities and improve their region’s general quality of life — but they can’t grow without skilled talent. A college-educated workforce helps everyone’s bottom line.

We have the ability to change our system for the better, and we know it will pay off. Reach out to state policymakers and higher education leaders to urge them to change bureaucratic structures that place institutional ease over student needs. Action now could mean a world of difference for students as soon as this fall.

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