Innovating for Equity: In West Sacramento, Everyone Goes to College for Free

By Betsy Gardner • SEPTEMBER 8, 2020

This post is part of the Innovating for Equity series.

“Congratulations on your graduation and your acceptance to Sacramento City College!”

So many high school seniors wait for the moment they receive their college acceptance letters. But this year, in the city of West Sacramento, 12th graders don’t have to spend months wading through forms, applying for financial aid, and crunching budgets — just to see if they even get into college. Instead, every graduating senior from the West Sacramento public school system is automatically accepted, no application needed or tuition expected, to Sacramento City College. Or, as Mayor Christopher Cabaldon puts it, “Everyone goes to college for free in West Sacramento.”

West Sacramento Mayor Christoper Cabaldon in a suit, outside
West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon

This is part of a major shift happening right now in West Sacramento, not just around education but around employment, community self-perception, and the local economy. “We don’t require you to apply to go from middle school to high school,” explained Mayor Cabaldon, “so why would we treat the transition from 12th grade to post-secondary education differently?”

Drawing on his background in education and behavioral economics, Mayor Cabaldon started the city’s Home Run community improvement initiative in 2017 to address two interconnected issues: the documented drop-off in the positive effects of universal preschool, and the mismatch between open jobs and skilled residents to fill them. “The effects of universal preschool diminish over time, and over the course of the student’s life they diminish relatively quickly,” said Cabaldon. So even with Home Run’s universal pre-K program, those gains need to be scaffolded with intentional support, or else they’re lost.

The three tenets, or bases, of the West Sacramento Home Run program: Preschool; Internships and Digital Badges; College Promise and Scholarship
The three tenets, or bases, of the West Sacramento Home Run program

The skills mismatch was an issue at the other end of students’ educational journeys, when they entered the workforce. “We have more jobs than we have people to fill them, and yet we’ve always had one of the highest unemployment rates in the region,” said Mayor Cabaldon. “Originally when I got elected, I thought that what I needed to do to solve unemployment was to create more jobs. And it quickly became apparent that that wasn’t the issue; we had a skills creating more jobs wasn’t going to be it.”

Thanks to his behavioral economics background, Mayor Cabaldon knew that attempting to individually mandate higher education wasn’t the solution. Instead, he decided to “bust the categorization siloes” and do something bigger and more systemic. Mayor Cabaldon had a good relationship with the Los Rios Community College District Chancellor Brian King and the public school superintendent Linda Luna due to his work on President Obama’s College Promise proposal, which provided two years of community college tuition-free for eligible students. Mayor Cabaldon wanted to take that program even further, and thanks to their data-sharing partnership, the group was easily able to start this new nudge by identifying graduating students and sending them all the auto-acceptance letters.

The three also implemented other new, smaller nudges; to encourage public school attendance, students enrolled in the region’s public school system would get a small college scholarship, to be used at any institute of higher education, not just the College Promise-sponsored community colleges. This helped incentivize college-oriented parents to stay with the public school system; the scholarship grows as students advance in the public schools. “The whole Home Run has been designed around a series of interconnected nudges, all of which are relatively small and all of which build on existing systems and benefits which aren’t being taken advantage of at the level that they could be,” explained Mayor Cabaldon.

Automatically accepting all high school graduates for free — and offering a scholarship for expenses — nudges students toward some level of post-secondary education by removing barriers like application fees, financial aid forms, and tuition. Mayor Cabaldon acknowledges that while not every student needs or wants to attend a four-year institution, some level of education past high school is important for gaining the skills that are required for many of the region’s available jobs.

And while some people are concerned that this new auto-admission will discourage students from applying to other schools outside the community college system, the program doesn’t send out the acceptance letters until graduation, when students who applied to other colleges would have already been accepted. “This is really aimed at kids that weren’t going to get some form of secondary education,” explained the mayor. This nudge will encourage them to earn some extra level of education and help close the skills gap.

One of the most impressive parts of the program is the cost: Mayor Cabaldon was able to implement the entire Home Run program without raising taxes. In 2014, California had a quarter-cent sales tax that was expiring and wouldn’t be extended. Mayor Cabaldon wanted to continue that tax locally, and simply redirect it to a comprehensive educational nudge program. “It was a crazy idea,” said Mayor Cabaldon. “What if we went forward with a sales tax of our own, locally?” He told constituents that they would “bring those state sales tax dollars home” and invest in an interconnected education system, aka the Home Run program. Residents supported this idea, and now the mayor is able to say that there’s not only “free college for everyone, but it’s for almost no money.”

Now, every child who enters kindergarten gets a college savings account, paid for by the city with that same tax money. Mayor Cabaldon points out that this has a nudge aspect as well; children must be enrolled in a high-quality preschool in order to qualify, and the city did find an increase in enrollment at qualifying preschools after starting this offer. In 2018 there were 406 graduates from high-quality preschools; by 2020 that number was up to 562. The “nudge on a nudge” reinforces attending a high quality preschool and thinking about college at the same time.

“The Home Run program, and this [free college] piece in particular, are about trying to change the social psychology of the entire community.” said Cabaldon, “We’re nudging and leveraging the maximum that we can, but we have to get all the other actors believing in and committing themselves to that.” Mayor Cabaldon believes that this cultural shift is already happening and reports that the response to the auto-admissions has been overwhelmingly positive. Residents are already changing their perspective on the community and “standing up a little taller” when they tell someone they’re from West Sacramento, which has not historically been the case in a city plagued with high unemployment and a history of community mental health challenges — on top of the current struggles with COVID-19.

The pandemic actually forced the mayor and the Home Run team to push forward the auto-admission and scholarships earlier than intended. Originally, there was a slower rollout planned for each piece, but with the shift to remote learning, financial insecurities, and cancelled senior year events, Mayor Cabaldon wanted the current seniors to get the admission letter and the free tuition “come Hell or high water.”

Mayor Cabaldon has big plans for this new aspect of the Home Run program. In the future, “when you come home from the hospital with your baby, I want you to get a stork basket from the city that includes your child’s future college ID card and a facsimile of a savings bond,” he said. Through simple and cost-effective nudges, West Sacramento is changing not only individual education and career goals, but the mentality of a whole community. “Post-secondary education is our North Star,” said Mayor Cabaldon, “It’s going to happen.”

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is a writer for Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.