Jessica Thompson, vice president of The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), second-to-the-left, speaks during a panel discussion concerning debt-free college at the CalMatters Studio in Sacramento on Oct. 24, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters
Jessica Thompson, vice president of The Institute for College Access and Success and second-to-the-left, speaks at the CalMatters Studio in Sacramento on Oct. 24, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

The question of whether the state can make college debt-free for all Californians — or just some — is a particularly fraught one. 

Take for instance, California’s Middle Class Scholarship program, which launched in 2022. In the last academic year, about 300,000 students received an average of $1,970 more toward their college education through the program, according to a CalMatters’ analysis. But advocacy groups like The Institute for College Access and Success argue California should spend more money on students who are ineligible for existing aid but are still low income. That includes community college students who outnumber University of California and California State University students three to one, and are mostly left out of the scholarship. 

This tension was at the center of a lively CalMatters panel session Tuesday — moderated by CalMatters’ higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn — which discussed the achievements, shortcomings and future of state aid programs including CalGrant and the Middle Class Scholarship program.

Some on the panel contended that fully funding CalGrant, which focuses on students from low-income households and community college students are eligible for, will make college more equitable for more people.

  • Jessica Thompson, Institute for College Access and Success’ vice president: Students are “borrowing at higher rates and they are borrowing more despite the grant aid than their higher-income peers. Everyone is struggling with college costs. This system is working for nobody…. That is why the CalGrant, I think, needs to be the priority before we can get to building that bridge further out.”

Others said that rather than putting one program above another, it’s better to streamline the aid process so that students can receive assistance from several avenues in the most efficient way.

  • Marlene Garcia, California Student Aid Commission’s executive director: “We have to think differently in this space about how do we communicate and how do we consolidate these programs so students don’t have to work so hard, jump through 20 different hoops to take advantage of all these different resources. And that to me is the goal and the vision for California…. We can’t afford to lose a generation.”

Chris Woods, the budget director for the Senate President pro tempore, said the state launched the Middle Class Scholarship program not only to help those who aren’t eligible for existing financial aid, but more importantly to build a “stronger middle class.” That way, college graduates could “save up money, maybe buy a house, get married” instead of being saddled with student debt “that sends money to some Delaware bank.” 

But one theme throughout the session was California’s high cost of living. Tuition aid aside, California’s high rent, textbooks and food can still render college unaffordable. These underlying costs prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Chief Deputy Cabinet Secretary Ben Chida to say: “Plug that f-cking hole. How is it that we’re just throwing good money after bad?…. All the money is going to a couple of core cost drivers.”

If you missed the discussion, catch the replay.

Other Sacramento Sessions: Here’s our coverage of the prior panel discussions, in May on homeownership, in June on police shootings, in August on electric vehicles and inequality and in September on prisoner rehabilitation

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DMV revokes Cruise permit

A driverless Cruise vehicle in San Francisco on Aug. 18, 2023.
A driverless Cruise vehicle in San Francisco on Aug. 18, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

After the California Public Utilities Commission voted to expand Waymo and Cruise’s autonomous taxi services in San Francisco in August, it seemed as if there was no stopping the presence of robotaxis in California. The motion from the city to suspend the commission’s vote made no big waves and despite vigilante efforts to “cone” and immobilize the vehicles, driverless cars still prowled the streets.

That’s why it came as a bit of a shock on Tuesday when the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles suspended Cruise’s licenses to test and deploy its autonomous vehicles, reports CalMatters’ economic reporter Levi Sumagaysay. And shortly after, in a comment to CalMatters, the utilities commission said it also suspended the company’s ability to carry passengers in driverless vehicles.

The DMV based its decision on an Oct. 2 incident in San Francisco in which a Cruise vehicle pinned a pedestrian underneath its rear tire after the woman was first struck by another human-operated car. The first car fled the scene, and the victim was transported to the hospital with traumatic injuries, according to various media outlets. In a statement, Cruise said its autonomous car “braked aggressively to minimize the impact.” 

The department was not immediately made aware that the Cruise vehicle then tried to pull over while the pedestrian was underneath it and only learned of its actions after “discussion with another government agency.” The public utilities commission is carrying out its own investigations into Cruise.

To learn more about the suspension and what it means for Cruise’s robotaxi services, read Levi’s story.

Cal State graduation gap persists

The quad at San Francisco State University in San Francisco on July 7, 2023.
The quad at San Francisco State University in San Francisco on July 7, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, Calmatters

From CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn

The California State University system continues its struggle to increase its graduation rates after making progress in past years.

The system debuted preliminary data Monday showing that 62% of students who enrolled as freshmen graduated six years later, in 2023. 

This represents both promising and dispiriting news for the nation’s largest four-year public university. Since 2015, Cal State has been racing to hit an ambitious goal of raising its six-year graduation rate for freshmen from 57% to 70% by 2025. With two years to go, the system is 8 percentage points off the mark.

The 2025 goals also seek to close the gap in graduation rates between Black, Latino and Native American students and those of all other students. But while the graduation rates of all racial and ethnic groups have risen since 2015, that growth hasn’t been equal.

Another frustration for the system: Cal State hasn’t been able to graduate at least half of its Black students in six years since it began its initiative. After coming close two years ago at 49.7%, the most recent data show that 47% of Black students graduate in six years.

These problems are bound to continue because the number of students dropping out after a year has also increased in the past few years — and convincing students who left to come back is difficult. 

The graduation initiative has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into improving student completion rates, money that has gone to adding more classes for in-demand courses, more professors and additional tutoring. The system is also attempting to lower how many new students earn failing grades in their classes, because students who begin college earning low grades are at a higher risk of dropping out. Cal State in June also committed an additional $10 million over three years to enroll and graduate more Black students.

Cal State was among the first systems in the country to set graduation goals, said Jennifer Baszile, a Cal State associate vice chancellor, in an interview. While the system hasn’t hit its targets, the focus on data has led to student improvement, she added.

Missed deadline for priority registration

Elisa Arquieta at California State University Long Beach on Oct. 12, 2023. Arquieta is both a student and a parent. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters
Elisa Arquieta at California State University Long Beach on Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters

To assist the more than 200,000 college students in California who have dependents, the governor signed a law last year that requires California’s three public higher education systems to provide priority registration for student parents. 

All three systems — the University of California, California State University and the California Community Colleges — had to make a website for those parents by Feb. 1 and offer priority registration to them by July 1. 

But as Atmika Iyer and Briana Mendez-Padilla of CalMatters’ College Journalism Network explain, only the University of California’s 10 campuses offered the service — Cal State and California community colleges failed to meet the deadline.

The reason? The institutions cited a lack of data on the number of eligible students, as well as a lack of time to implement the necessary software. Advocates and campus coordinators, however, remain optimistic the law will formalize and ease data collection.

This would make things easier for Elisa Arquieta, as well as women of color who are the majority of the student parent population. Arquieta is a fourth-year student at Cal State Long Beach and the mother of two children. After missing fall registration and finding out that the two classes she needed to complete her degree were booked, she was finally able to get off the waitlist.  

  • Arquieta: “Luckily, I was able to get it. But it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna have to wait and I’m gonna have to figure this out.’” 

For more on this story, read Atmika and Briana’s story.

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: While Gov. Newsom polishes his foreign policy credentials with visits to Israel and China, California is experiencing an economic slowdown that may not bode well for the final three years of his governorship.

While the revenue from a new excise tax on firearm and ammunition purchases is supposed to fund gun violence prevention, California’s lackluster history with prevention programs suggests little will actually change, writes Connor Vasile, a law student and Young Voices contributor.

Other things worth your time:

Some stories may require a subscription to read.

Corcoran state prison: How decades-old decisions and a chaotic climate left incarcerated people at risk // The Marshall Project

Officials urge CA residents to brace for flooding as El Niño looms // Los Angeles Times

‘Galapagos’-like area along CA coast is about to get major protection // San Francisco Chronicle

Eight years after disastrous Aliso Canyon gas leak, residents still seek answers // Los Angeles Daily News

Want to charge your electric car at work? Some CA departments say ‘no’ // The Sacramento Bee

From doom to boom: AI is slowly re-energizing SF // The Washington Post

Californians of color disproportionately suffer from late detection of dementia // Capital & Main

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Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an edtech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento...