Students walks through the Meriam Library courtyard at Chico State University on February 12, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

(CALMATTERS) – Lawmakers are boasting about a massive infusion of funding in the new budget to help more Californians afford college and expand enrollment at public universities, including the most competitive. But all of those are unfunded promises.

None of that money will be available unless lawmakers and the governor agree next year to fund them.

The $515 million to create a debt-free grant for lower- and middle-income University of California and California State University students? The budget deal for the 2021-22 fiscal year dedicates not one dollar to it but will next year, “subject to an available and sufficient appropriation.”

The $149 million to fund 15,000 extra seats in 2022-23 for California residents at the UC and CSU? Not a dollar either. 

For now, the budget language says the Legislature has “the intent” to provide funds next year, a departure from recent practice when the budget act provided money upfront to grow enrollment later. 

Legislative staffers explain that their revenue projections show the state will be more cash-rich next year than this year. The move puts pressure on the systems to begin hiring more faculty without money in the bank ahead of an expected mandate to enroll more students. 

That sounds different than what Assemblymember Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat and chair of the Assembly’s budget committee, said yesterday during a hearing on the budget deal: “We also hear people that we need to increase access to higher education. So we are increasing slots for them for 15,000 more students.”

What’s getting money now 

The historic budget, the largest ever produced by Sacramento, does inject real money for the fiscal year starting July 1 that will immediately benefit hundreds of thousands of students — but on a smaller scale than what lawmakers’ budget summaries say.

It’s a dramatic change from just a year ago, when the state was staring down a $54 billion budget hole and imposed cuts and IOUs of nearly $2.6 billion on California’s public universities and community colleges. All those dollars are being restored and then some in this budget deal, with the UC and CSU getting increases in ongoing funding of 5% — about $173 million and $186 million, respectively. 

And that excludes other one-time investments, like more than $400 million to revamp Cal State Humboldt as the state’s third polytechnic university with the goal of  beefing up California’s capacity to teach the sciences. Or the $2 billion over three years to build affordable student housing and other campus buildings. 

A lot of that money will fund efforts at the UC and CSU to improve their graduation rates. This has the dual effect of getting students to a degree faster and opening slots for new students — though not as many as the proposed enrollment growth plans. 

But all the money for the UC still falls short of how much of its core funding for student academics used to flow from state support. Just over a decade ago, 60% came from the state’s general fund. Lately, it’s closer to 40%, meaning the system has relied more on tuition hikes.