College Affordability

After a budget season with unprecedented focus on financial aid, the 2017-18 California State budget agreement now on Governor Brown’s desk includes several important policy gains.

Most critically, the budget includes welcome and long-overdue increases to financial aid for full-time community college students to help cover total college costs that can exceed $20,000 a year.  Due to an increase to the Full-Time Student Success Grant (FTSSG), a program championed by the Assembly two years ago, Cal Grant recipients taking 12 or more credits per term will see an increase of up to $400 per year (for a maximum award size of $1,000). Since its creation, the FTSSG program has received broad support with even the Brown Administration proposing to increase student eligibility and the maximum award size.  And the creation of a new financial aid program, the Community College Completion Grant championed by Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, will provide eligible students who take additional credits (at least 30 in total per year) during the fall, spring, and/or summer terms with up to $2,000 more per year. While both of these programs are only available to students who receive Cal Grant awards, and hundreds of thousands of community college students who are eligible for Cal Grants are turned away each year due to insufficient funding, these increases add up to substantial new aid availability for those who can access it.  The additional aid will enable students to spend more time in class and studying, rather than working to cover total college costs, increasing their odds of graduating and graduating faster. (Critically, the budget also includes $150 million to support community colleges’ development of ‘guided pathways,’ so that students who want to take 15 or more credits per term can be assured that the specific credits they need for their program are available to them.) 

The budget also includes other key financial aid improvements: 

  • As proposed by the Brown Administration, the California Student Aid Commission will get greater authority to make competitive Cal Grant award offers to students at the time students are making decisions about whether and where to enroll in college. There are only 25,750 competitive Cal Grants (i.e., grants for students who are not recent high school graduates) available each year for more than 300,000 eligible applicants, and the need to stay under that strict cap leads to long delays before many of the awards are received by students. The budget agreement will allow CSAC to make more offers early on, without risking exceeding their authority.
  • Community college students who receive Cal Grant C awards (designated for students in certain career technical programs) will see their grant double, from $547 to $1,094.
  • The maximum Cal Grant B access award, which helps low-income students cover non-tuition college costs, will see a small increase (thanks to 2014 legislation, SB 174 and SB 798, from Senator De León), from $1,670 to $1,672.

In addition to these changes, the budget once again postpones the scheduled reduction to the Cal Grant received by students at private WASC-accredited colleges, and maintains the Middle Class Scholarship program that Governor Brown had proposed phasing out.

We are grateful for the Legislature’s actions to strengthen financial aid and enable more California community college students – whose out-of-pocket costs, despite low tuition and fees, can exceed those of their peers at public four-year schools – to attend full time.  Yet even while recognizing the importance of these budget gains, in a recent op-ed Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon acknowledged “we haven’t done everything we can for students in need.” We concur, and look forward to continuing to work together with the Legislature and Administration to bring college costs within reach for low-income Californians. 

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Debbie Cochrane, TICAS vice president, provided expert testimony on college affordability before a joint hearing of the California Assembly’s Higher Education Committee and Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance on Monday, February 27. Her testimony described which students face the greatest affordability barriers, and included new TICAS research showing the severity of the affordability problem for California’s low-income students, and why free tuition is not the solution. (Debbie Cochrane's testimony starts at the 20:35 mark.)

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