When the economy went into a tailspin in the fall of 2008, I was a sophomore at Sonoma State University. In the months and years that followed, I saw firsthand how a recession can disrupt every aspect of campus life, from academics to work study to health care access.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series, in which our experts delve into the details of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s January budget proposal. Check out our post on the Governor’s proposals for K-12 and stay tuned for our next post examining early childhood education.

When the economy went into a tailspin in the fall of 2008, I was a sophomore at Sonoma State University. In the months and years that followed, I saw firsthand how a recession can disrupt every aspect of campus life, from academics to work study to health care access. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that Governor Newsom proposed an initial budget that learns from the past and looks to the future. Don’t get me wrong: every budget proposal has room for improvement, and we have plenty of work to do to protect what’s good and keep working on the rest. But after months of doom-and-gloom predictions about a looming crisis, there’s a lot to like, too.

Governor Newsom was smart to propose “early action” to get students who badly-needed support and services fast. Students are hurting right now, and they can’t afford to wait for the fiscal year to start in July. The Governor’s budget includes $100 million for emergency student financial grants to help community college students cover urgent needs like food, housing, virtual learning technology, or whatever else it takes to make ends meet. It also preserves maximum Cal Grant awards for students at private, nonprofit colleges and includes more than $58 million to restore Cal Grant A eligibility for students who lost their eligibility when the pandemic forced them to move off campus. And it includes a critical, one-time $20 million investment to boost community college enrollment and retention. When we surveyed students in the spring, we found that students are delaying college or seeing it as infeasible due to the pandemic, and community college enrollment dropped by 10 percent from 2019 to 2020. 

Even as we rush to get students urgent help, we can’t lose sight of the future. While the pandemic has widened opportunity gaps for students of color and students from lower-income communities, it didn’t create them. The systemic changes we needed before March 2020 didn’t go away — in fact they’re more important than ever. That’s why I was especially pleased to see that Governor Newsom included some proposals that we and our partners have been advocating for years.

First, the budget calls for districts to confirm that all high school seniors complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or California Dream Act Application (CADAA). If it’s supported by funding and implemented smartly, that proposal would be a huge step toward equitable college access. We launched our All In for Financial Aid campaign to help understand how this can be done by our districts and schools, because filling out a free application has been shown to dramatically increase a student’s likelihood of going to college. That’s especially true for students from the lowest-income families, who are more than twice as likely to enroll if they fill out a FAFSA. Yet hundreds of thousands of seniors skip the application each year, leaving a half billion dollars on the table. And Black students in particular are less likely to complete a financial aid application than their counterparts—not because they’re doing anything wrong but because we aren’t giving them the support and information they need. Requiring districts to confirm that students have applied for aid is a good way to start changing all of that.

Second, Governor Newsom wisely included $15 million for a “Cradle to Career” educational data system. We can’t build a better, more just educational infrastructure if we don’t know what’s working and what’s not. California is just one of a handful of states without a statewide longitudinal data system. Without it, students, families, educators, policymakers, and the public are missing necessary information to evaluate programs, shape solutions, and address challenges. For example, when it comes to higher education, the data system could help us understand where students are falling through cracks in the K-12-college pipeline, or which programs are especially effective in getting students into stable, secure jobs when they graduate. We’ve been calling for Data for the People for a long time, and we’ll continue to fight to make it a reality.

Finally, it’s encouraging that the Governor’s proposal includes funding for all three public higher education segments — the Community Colleges, UCs, and CSUs — to close the digital divide, support mental health, and meet basic needs like food and housing. If we want students to thrive academically, we have to make sure they’re safe, healthy, and have access to the tools they need to learn. I lived that reality. If I hadn’t been able to navigate the CalFRESH system, I might have been worried about where my next meal would come from instead of the paper I was supposed to be working on. When I was grieving the loss of a family member, Sonoma State was the first place I ever sought out and received counseling. Every student deserves access to those same supports — especially now in a pandemic.

All of the proposals we’ve discussed so far are important, and we need to work together, along with the Governor and the Legislature, to ensure they end up in the final budget in June. There are also some remaining questions and opportunities for improvement between now and then. 

One glaring omission in the Governor’s initial proposal is any discussion of modernizing the Cal Grant program to serve more students and meet their non-tuition needs. There is no COVID recovery without an education recovery, and California’s higher education system is leading the country in its ability to drive social mobility for students. This is why our financial aid needs to be modernized! We need to assure students from low income communities, in particular, will see college as viable with the help of financial aid. The important investments in the Governor’s budget proposal should be part of a long-term plan to reform and improve Cal Grants.

We’d also like to see basic needs funding for community college students made permanent and more detail about how funding for health, digital equity, and basic needs will be divided among those areas.

Overall, however, the Governor’s proposal is an important foundation on which we can begin to rebuild a stronger, more just California. Learn more about our All in for Financial Aid Campaign and join us to protect the best ideas and continue to push alongside our community partners for investment and implementation that puts equity first. 

Manny Rodriguez is the Senior Legislative Associate at The Education Trust-West. He leads our higher education advocacy work, first generation son of immigrants, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies, and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Sonoma State University.