Earlier this week, in the wake of negotiations with the Legislature, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the 2016-17 state budget into law. Disappointingly, it includes no increases to the number of Cal Grants available for low-income students, and even takes money out of financial aid by redirecting $42 million in unspent Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) program funds elsewhere.
On the other hand, there are a few positive developments in the budget agreement for California students and college affordability. The maximum Cal Grant B will be increased by $22 thanks to 2014 legislation by Senate pro Tem Kevin de León which was formalized through the budget. The Full-Time Student Success Grant (FTSSG), created in last year’s budget agreement, is being expanded to allow more full-time California Community College students to receive an additional $600. The budget also includes funding to support innovative efforts at community colleges to improve students’ access to financial aid programs and strengthen coordination with local education agencies, among other goals.
Interestingly, as requested by the Assembly, the budget agreement also calls upon the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) to study the ways in which state-based financial aid can be strengthened to reduce low- and middle-income Californians’ reliance on student loan debt by helping students cover more of their college costs. Among the options the LAO will study is the consolidation of the state’s many financial aid programs – including Cal Grants, the MCS, the FTSSG, and institutional aid programs at the community colleges, California State University, and University of California.
There are several components of this study that make it worth watching:
- The focus is on total college costs – not just tuition. For most California students, tuition and fees are a fraction of total costs; at the CCCs, for example, where fees are among the lowest in the nation, non-tuition costs including room, board, transportation, books, and supplies can represent more than 90 percent of the total cost of attendance. Yet state and institutional aid programs are currently designed primarily to subsidize tuition and fees.
- It includes all public colleges. Within California public colleges, only the University of California has been able to implement a strategy designed to bring the total cost of college within reach. At others, including the community colleges where the majority of low-income students enroll, there simply aren’t enough resources available to do so. This helps to explain why it is often more expensive for low-income students to attend a community college than a public four-year institution.
- It acknowledges that the burden of debt falls most heavily on lower income students. There’s a widespread misperception that existing grant aid programs bring college within reach for low-income students, whereas higher income students must take on debt. However, existing data doesn’t bear that out: At UC, graduates with family incomes under $53,000 are much more likely than graduates from higher income groups to have debt.
Taking a step back to assess how California’s many financial aid programs are working together is key to understanding and addressing some of the underlying inequities facing low- and middle-income students in affording and succeeding in college. There’s no way to know at this point what will come of this study, but the fact that the study was requested and the specific parameters provided are encouraging signs that the Legislature and Governor recognize that the status quo – which shortchanges low-income students and the colleges that serve them – needs improvement.