Charlie Kaijo./flickr
Then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at University of California Regents meeting. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown is behind him.

As California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom will face a rare and well-timed opportunity to put his mark on the world’s largest higher education system.

Newsom, who is to be inaugurated Jan. 7, starts off with an estimated $14.8 billion state budget surplus and, as a result, high expectations among higher education leaders and experts that he will keep many of his campaign promises. Among those pledges: more money to the state’s university systems to avoid tuition hikes, two years of free community college, financial aid reform and better coordination throughout higher education.

The impact of Newsom’s governorship on higher education could be significant, touching the lives of the 2.5 million students in total enrolled across the 115 community colleges, 23 California State University campuses and the 10 University of California campuses.

In response to an EdSource questionnaire for primary election candidates last spring, Newsom pledged that his first budget would include “a significant boost” in spending for CSU and UC and he would oppose any tuition increases. “It has been nothing less than devastating to watch the state’s disinvestment from public higher education, and with it, stripping a generation of Californians of an opportunity those before them enjoyed,” he wrote at the time.

In that statement and during numerous campaign forums, Newsom also said he would push for all students to receive two years of free community college under the California Promise program that now covers one year if their college district agrees. In addition, he said he wanted to revive a state agency that would coordinate the state’s three college and state university systems and try to expand and improve financial aid for older students.

Newsom’s campaign statements often did not provide specifics on timing or dollar amounts. In recent weeks, Newsom’s staff did not respond to repeated EdSource requests for an interview or policy statement about his specific plans. Some of that is expected to be revealed in Newsom’s first formal budget statement to be released in mid-January.

Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, chair of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education, told EdSource that he expects that “higher education will be more of a priority for (Newsom) than it was for the previous governor.” While he would not predict specific spending levels Newsom may offer in his first state budget, Medina said he anticipates “better funding” and more attention to the issues.

Michele Siqueiros, president of the advocacy organization Campaign for College Opportunity, said that the revenue surplus makes it easier for Newsom to be generous to higher education. “I would be floored, with all these additional resources and the promises on the campaign trail, if we don’t see bigger and better investments in higher education,” she said.

At the same time, Newsom’s biggest and most costly initiative in the education field is expected to be widening access to pre-K early education.

But observers also expect that Newsom will be more sympathetic to academia than Gov. Jerry Brown was both in the tone of his leadership and in state financial support. Newsom served on higher education governing boards for eight years in his position as lieutenant governor and has developed relationships with leaders there.

Brown, who was also a member of those boards, rarely attended those meetings and sometimes caustically challenged the spending habits and even teaching methods at the universities. After previously serving as governor from 1975-83, Brown returned to that office in 2011 and faced the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007 and the deep funding cuts the state university systems had suffered during that financial crisis. While generally ending the cuts, Brown still provided far less money than UC and CSU said they needed while he also enforced tuition freezes that lasted for most of his recent eight years in office.

Now the official wish lists facing Newsom are costly.

California’s community college system is requesting $488 million in extra funding from the state for the 2019-2020 budget year, aimed in part to improve graduation and transfer rates. The CSU Board of Trustees wants an increase of $456 million in its 2019-20 budget, including funds to enroll 18,000 additional California residents. Similarly, UC regents are seeking a $376 million increase in state general revenue funding, which would help add 2,500 undergraduates, among other projects.

Yet despite the state’s surplus, some experts think that Newsom will continue to pressure UC and CSU for more efficiencies, such as reducing the time it takes for students to graduate. “I think it’s inevitable that any governor — but certainly Gov. Newsom, with his experience with the CSU and UC systems — will push both systems for continuing efficiencies in cost,” said William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education there.

Although Newsom has pledged to avoid tuition hikes, Tierney said he does not anticipate enormous increases to higher education funding. “It’s definitely not automatic,” he said, noting that the incoming governor faces many competing demands, including helping the state recover from the recent wildfires. Even with the current surplus, the economy could change for the worse and Tierney said he thinks Newsom does not want the state to go into debt again.

Newsom said he wants to increase the number and size of the Cal Grants, the state’s primary college grant program, for adults who don’t go to college soon after high school. Those older students now must compete for a very limited pool of aid that critics complain discourages college enrollment.

Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a research and policy group that promotes wider college attendance, said she anticipates Newsom will carry through on those promises of free community college for two years and grants for older students. “I expect that will be a priority for him,” she said.

With legislation already introduced in Sacramento for that second year of free tuition, the proposal seems likely to be “a high priority and hopefully an early win for this administration,” said Max Lubin, founder and CEO of Rise California, a group that is pushing for free tuition across the board at the state’s colleges and universities. 

Nearly half of the students in the California Community College System already receive free tuition under the system’s College Promise Grant, which waives enrollment fees for low-income students. Tuition without financial aid runs $1,104 per year for full-time students.

Less certain, Lubin and other experts said, is whether Newsom will tackle proposals to vastly increase Cal Grants beyond tuition so that they cover housing, food and other costs. Newsom has said that he wants to ensure that no California college student lacks proper housing and food and that he would “provide the resources necessary to address these crises.” But the governor-elect has not committed to any specific plan in that area.

Newsom has said that he wants to re-establish a statewide coordinating body for higher education, much like the former California Postsecondary Education Commission. That agency was shut down in 2011 after Brown eliminated its funding in a line item veto, calling the commission “ineffective.” The commission also collected some of the data on how students fare in college; advocates say the state badly needs that information again. Brown vetoed a bill in 2015 that would have revived the commission’s function and another in 2012 to create the data system.

The revival of such an agency or the appointment of some sort of Commissioner of Higher Education are widely anticipated. Newsom has not publicly offered any details on how such a body would operate and what kind of authority it might have over university systems, which may be reluctant to surrender any power.

A new coordinating agency or commissioner would “lead the development of a strategic and accountability plan for higher education across the state,” according to Estela Mara Bensimon, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California and a professor in educational equity there. Newsom “needs someone with experience on campus in California and someone who is unafraid to call out the issues we face, with the ability to actually solve them,” she said.

Newsom also wants to vastly improve data collection and monitoring so students can be tracked from pre-K to college graduation and into the workplace. But with start-up costs estimated as high as $10 million, plus $2 million or $3 million a year to run such a system, it remains to be seen how strong his commitment to data collection is.

On that issue and many others in higher education, Newsom’s first budget will be closely examined to learn how he intends to keep campaign pledges. He could also use the document to lay out a vision for the state’s higher education system that could be carried out at least over the next four years.

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