Blog Post | September 29, 2022

To Reach 70 Percent College Attainment in California, We Need 100 Percent of Colleges in the State Onboard

Author: Maya Corrin & Ana Fung

The recently adopted (although not yet funded) Cal Grant Reform Act would expand access to and strengthen California’s cornerstone financial aid program, the largest state grant aid program in the country. This follows last year’s historic expansion of the Cal Grant entitlement award to community college students regardless of age or time out of high school. These Cal Grant reforms largely focus on better supporting students enrolled across California’s three public segments—the University of California, California State University, and California Community College systems —a focus that makes sense given that California’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities enroll about 85 percent of all undergraduates in the state and the vast majority of low-income and BIPOC students. Securing the funding is necessary to implement the newly adopted Cal Grant reforms, which will both expand eligibility and increase aid amounts.

As we look into the future, an additional layer of Cal Grant reform will be needed to tackle the role that independent California colleges and universities (ICCUs), also known as private non-profit institutions, play in California’s higher education landscape. While ICCUs in California do not receive general operating support from the state, their students do receive substantial Cal Grant aid. According to the most recent data from the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs (NASSGAP), in 2019-2020, on average, Cal Grant recipients at ICCUs received about $8,600 in annual financial assistance. These grants, totaling over $250 million annually, constitute the second highest state-funded grants for students attending ICCUs colleges in the country.

In the 2022-23 California State Budget, Governor Gavin Newsom established a college degree attainment goal of 70 percent of California adults (ages 25-64) earning degrees, including associate degrees and long-term certificates, by 2030. In order to accomplish this ambitious goal, Californians will need stronger commitments from private non-profit institutions to enroll and graduate more BIPOC students and students from low-income households. One critical way to achieve that goal is for private nonprofit colleges to accept significantly more transfer students than they do today. This blog looks at the state’s current transfer requirements for ICCUs and discusses how they can be strengthened to ensure that the sector can be better incorporated as an effective partner in reaching statewide higher education attainment goals.

California’s evolving transfer expectations for ICCUs

California recognizes that supporting transfer students is a crucial part of increasing college attainment levels by counting credits from community colleges towards the completion of four-year degrees. The Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) pathway was created in 2010 and facilitates transfers from California Community Colleges (CCCs) to four-year institutions. As the Campaign for College Opportunity finds, the ADT pathway has proven to increase on-time graduation rates for the transfer students it was designed to serve, with 55 percent of California State University students on an ADT pathway graduating within two years of transfer, compared to 40 percent of those who transferred with a traditional associate degree in 2018. In 2018, the state started requiring ICCUs to admit at least 2,000 CCC students through ADT pathways to maintain their systemwide maximum Cal Grant tuition award for the upcoming academic year.

However, as shown in the below table, ICCUs only met ADT targets once since the provision was enacted. Failure to meet targets would have been met with a sector-wide reduction of the maximum Cal Grant tuition award to $8,056, however, in each budget the sector has been granted a pass that has protected ICCUs from facing a reduction in aid.

Sources: Legislative Analyst’s Office, The 2021-22 California Spending Plan: Higher Education, October 11, 2021,; Spending Plans from previous years can be found on; Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, Associate Degree for Transfer Status Report, April 19, 2022,

While ICCUs accept transfers outside of the ADT program and have increased the number of ADT transfers into the sector overall, progress on meeting ADT-specific commitments has slowed. The ADT pathway remains a key state-sanctioned and evidence-based transfer pathway to increase on-time graduation rates for students. However, instead of building additional guardrails to help keep the sector on track to meet its ADT targets, current trailer bill language replaces the existing system with a new ADT target formula that would instead require the sector to admit as many students through ADT as it did in the previous year, adjusted by the percentage change in the total number of transfer students (including those who transfer with traditional associate degrees) over the past two years. This formula makes the sector’s commitment more retrospective as opposed to forward-looking. In other words, it is possible that the annual ADT targets become less meaningful over time, especially if past declines in transfer enrollment at ICCUs result in decreased future targets.  

To further complicate this target-based policy, Senate Bill 851 (Portantino, 2022) – sponsored by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (AICCU) – would have created even less incentive for ICCUs to meet annual ADT targets. Specifically, the bill – which has recently been amended to address a different policy issue – would have expedited implementation of the trailer bill’s formula-based target system to 2022-23. While this version of SB 851 is no longer on the table, its goals and language are likely to resurface in the coming years. Under the bill, if the private non-profit sector failed to meet the annual targets under the new system, the maximum Cal Grant tuition award at ICCUs would equal the previous year’s amount instead of facing a reduction. If the sector did meet the target, the tuition award would have increased in pace with the California Consumer Price Index (CCPI). While it is critical and long overdue to increase student tuition awards in pace with CCPI, adjustments for students at California’s public segments, which serve most of the state’s college students including most who are low-income and BIPOC, must be prioritized. Notably, the California Budget for 2022-23 includes a CCPI adjustment for the Cal Grant 2 award that supports students’ non-tuition costs at public community colleges, but this adjustment is not funded by the current budget and will only be enacted in 2024 contingent on available funding. For now, Cal Grant 2 awards are capped at an annual maximum of $1,648, worth only about one-fifth its original value, to cover non-tuition college costs that can exceed $23,000 annually.  

Alternatively, to ensure that the mandated ADT targets at ICCUs are meaningfully set and met, more ICCUs should create ADT pathways with CCCs; as of 2021-22, only 37 out of 76 undergraduate-serving ICCUs contributed to the sector-wide ADT target. The more highly resourced and competitive schools in the sector have opted out of participating in the program and contributing to ADT targets. Uneven burdens across institutions, particularly for those with smaller pots of institutional dollars to supplement state aid should it be reduced, can be addressed by assigning the ADT target to individual institutions versus systemwide – that way, any institution that meets the target would not see its students’ Cal Grants amount reduced. Furthermore, more resourced, competitive schools would be motivated to participate and offer ADT pathways.   

Additionally, from an equity perspective, we agree with ICCUs that low-income Cal Grant-eligible students enrolled at ICCUs should not be punished by having their tuition awards reduced when the sector does not meet its annual ADT targets. However, we could hold our Cal Grant students harmless by converting this policy into a stronger accountability tool for the institutions themselves by requiring them to use institutional funding to compensate for the decrease in state financial aid. While there are some barriers to meeting ADT targets that lie outside of the sector’s control, like the COVID-19 pandemic that affects enrollment across the board, it is critical that the state implements policies to ensure that ICCUs – not their current and prospective students – are held accountable for broadening CCC transfer access and success at both the sector- and institution-levels, in exchange for sustained public financial aid funding. 

Systemic Cal Grant Reform combined with the Governor’s multi-year compacts and roadmap with the three public segments serve as necessary investments towards reaching 70 percent postsecondary education attainment by 2030. These policies strengthen intersegmental coordination, improve college affordability, and prioritize equitable access and outcomes. However, reaching 70 percent attainment statewide is not a goal that our public segments can accomplish alone. California’s ICCUs are critical partners, and state policymakers need to work with them to ensure that they hold up their commitment to accelerate and grow their transfer student population and in so doing help make 70 percent attainment reality. 

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