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California Gov. Gavin Newsom gave his legislative pen a workout this month, signing several higher education bills into law prior to this session’s Oct. 14 deadline. 

Legislative changes in California can have ripple effects on the higher education world, as the state has three massive public college systems serving over 2.5 million students.

This session, state lawmakers repeatedly worked to streamline higher education, from a controversial transfer pathway for community college students to a simplified financial aid process for unauthorized immigrants.

Below, we rounded up some of the most important higher education legislation to come out of California’s session.

Yes In God’s Backyard

A new law allows private nonprofit colleges and religious institutions to build affordable housing on their land — something zoning laws often complicate.

SB 4, also known as Yes In God’s Backyard, introduces a streamlined development process, under which colleges can skip a majority of the state’s permitting and environmental review rules. Newsom signed SB 4 into law in tandem with dozens of other bills aimed at addressing the state’s housing shortage.

“California desperately needs to ramp up housing production, and the Governor’s actions today help put us on a path to achieve that goal,” Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, who introduced the bill, said in a statement. “The era of saying no to housing is coming to an end.”

SB 4 is set to remain in place until 2036.

“It’s simple math,” Newsom said in a joint statement. “California needs to build more housing and ensure the housing we have is affordable.”

In-state community college tuition for some Mexico residents

Under AB 91, students living in Mexico within 45 miles of the California border can receive in-state tuition to one of nine community colleges. Each institution can only enroll up to 150 full-time equivalent students, and those students are limited to lower-level classes.

Colleges included in the legislation are:

  • Cuyamaca College.
  • Grossmont College.
  • Imperial Valley College.
  • MiraCosta College. 
  • Palomar College.
  • San Diego City College.
  • San Diego Mesa College. 
  • San Diego Miramar College.
  • Southwestern College. 

Such residency programs are not uncommon at the country’s northern border. In Maine, Canadian residents receive in-state tuition at the state’s public universities. And residents of Canada’s Manitoba province can enroll in participating Minnesota public colleges at the in-state rate.

Simplifying the financial aid process for unauthorized immigrants

Under AB 1540, immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission can now verify their eligibility for in-state college tuition using one of the state’s financial aid forms.

Before the legislation passed, such students had to submit affidavits attesting to their residency status and eligibility for in-state rates separately from financial aid applications.

The process often confused students and resulted in delays or denials to their financial aid applications, according to the California Student Aid Commission, a government group working to make college more accessible. The commission voiced support for AB 1540.

Under the statute, Cal State and California’s community college system must accept eligibility affidavits as part of financial aid applications. The legislation requests that the UC system and private California colleges do the same.

Returning Native American remains and artifacts

Newsom signed two bills – AB 226 and 389 — aimed at increasing accountability over how the state’s public university systems handle Native American remains and cultural items. Democratic Assemblymember James Ramos, the state’s first Native American lawmaker from a California tribe, introduced both.

Decades-old federal and state laws require colleges that receive government funding to create a process to identify and return Native remains and artifacts to the appropriate tribes. 

But the California State University system hasn’t complied. A June report from the state auditor found the system has nearly 700,000 collected human remains and cultural items and that it has only returned 6% of its artifacts.

Under AB 389, the system must submit annual reports updating the state on its repatriation process.

The new law also requires Cal State campuses to hire full-time, experienced repatriation coordinators by July 2024, and it bans them from using Native American remains or cultural items for teaching and research purposes.

“AB 389 will ensure that decades after a federal and state requirement to repatriate the remains of our ancestors, CSU takes this responsibility seriously,” Ramos said in a statement. “These bones are the remains of our ancestors and deserve respectful reburial.”

AB 226 addressed the same issues with the University of California system, though it takes less stringent measures. 

The system’s repatriation process must be audited in 2024 and 2026. The legislation also strongly urges the system’s president to fund campus efforts to return Native artifacts and to prohibit their use academically.

Doctoral degrees at Cal State

Under AB 656, California State University campuses can now offer professional or applied doctoral degrees in any subject. 

Previously, the system had to work with UC campuses on joint doctoral degrees, though such deals were at UC’s discretion. Previous legislation also permitted Cal State to offer doctoral degrees in topics like public health and education. 

The system can create up to 10 new doctoral programs each academic year under the new statute, so long as they do not duplicate ones offered at University of California and meet other requirements.

“This is a revolutionary change for our system and for [San Diego State University], and signals state-level support for our mission,” Adela de la Torre, president of the university, a Cal State campus, said in a statement. “The educational and social-mobility opportunities this will provide Californians eager to become part of tomorrow’s advanced workforce is unprecedented.”

San Diego State announced it had begun working on new doctoral degrees shortly after Newsom signed the bill into law.

The community college-to-UC pipeline

AB 1291 aims to streamline the transfer process for community college students into the University of California system.

The process would begin as a pilot program at the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA will offer priority admission for community college students transferring under eight majors. The university must select those majors by 2026-27. 

By the 2028–29 academic year, the UC system will select additional universities to participate.

However, the legislation does not offer community college graduates a guaranteed admissions pathway to the UC system.

Student representatives from both the community college and the UC systems opposed it, calling it “hastily drafted and last-minute legislation with no student input.” Alternative action is necessary, they said, as few students who start at a community college and want to transfer do so within five years.