According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, California just modified its $475 million Student Equity and Achievement Program “to allow the funds to be used for emergency student aid.” Since these changes don’t entail new funding, much of the article was dedicated to hand-wringing about whether diverting existing funds from other priorities “like tutoring, peer-mentoring programs and equity-focused professional development for faculty” is, on balance, a good idea.
On the one hand, there is evidence that giving students emergency financial support is both a needed and an effective intervention:
Colleges in California and across the nation have created their own emergency aid programs. A Senate analysis of the bill notes that Pasadena City College and Grossmont College both fund their programs through external sources like foundations and fundraising.
Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, said the association found in a survey that most colleges feel they aren’t fully meeting students’ emergency financial needs.
“Because emergencies are typically unexpected, it’s hard to find the right balance that’s needed,” she said, adding that she thinks the spirit of the bill is “consistent with what a lot of campuses have said.”
According to the Senate floor analyses, Chiu cites as support a February 2017 report from the Institute for College Access and Success on college costs for low-income California students. The report found that low-income students at public colleges in California can’t afford college costs with the available grants, their own resources and some working income.
It also found that community colleges sometimes have a greater net price for low-income students than four-year public schools due to the limited amount of grants available for community college students.
Chiu argued that research shows emergency aid can keep students enrolled through unforeseen challenges.
Research does show that emergency aid can keep students enrolled. See, for example, Georgia State University’s Panther Retention Grants.
But on the other hand, the other interventions that the $475 million California program has been funding up until now are important too.
However, the Senate grappled with questions of whether the Student Equity and Achievement Program funds would be best used for this purpose. The analysis asks if the bill would “set a precedent that dilutes student equity funds intended for critical academic support service,” and if expanding state financial aid programs would be more appropriate.
The Senate Appropriations Committee said the bill could redirect funds away from other student support services, which could lead to “potentially significant … cost pressure” to maintain the state’s current level of student support services.
What the article doesn’t mention is whether the legislature funded any significant research, either previously or going forward, that will help guide the colleges regarding which investments are likely to be most effective in meeting their equity goals. Because that’s the question, right? Colleges have options to spend their money to best serve their students. And given the total amount of money in play across the system—nearly half a billion dollars—one would think that a small amount of money invested in research would be a wise allocation of funding.
Maybe it’s in there and just not mentioned in the IHE article. I hope so. Past experience with the California system suggests that (a) the legislature doesn’t think this way and (b) the California Community College System is not set up well to execute programmatic research of this kind even when they are given the funding and prioritization to do so—in part because they are not given the funding and prioritization to do so as often as they should be.
If there is policy uncertainty about a consequential matter that impacts students in a meaningful way, then that risk should be approached with an experimental mindset. If you aren’t mindful about assessing the impact of different choices, then you’re just throwing dice.