Earlier today, California Governor Jerry Brown unveiled his updated budget proposal for 2016-17. It includes a small but important expansion to a community college financial aid program created last year, which helps low-income students enroll full time. Under the expansion, the benefit will extend to more students enrolled in career technical education programs.
However, there’s more that can and should be done in the 2016-17 state budget to make college affordable for more Californians. As we’ve noted previously, this budget – as did the last – assumes unrealistically high spending in the Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) program. Funding for the program is set by law, and the amount that has been set is more than enough to serve the students eligible for the program, both now and in the foreseeable future.
In 2015-16, about $34 million of the appropriated amount went unspent, and now that the year is almost over the Governor is proposing to spend those funds elsewhere. We project that even more of the appropriated MCS funding – $41 million – will go unspent in 2016-17. In the same year, hundreds of thousands of eligible Cal Grant applicants will not receive grants because too few are available, and many others will struggle to cover non-tuition costs with a grant that has not kept pace with inflation.
Leaving unnecessary appropriations in the budget either to return to the state’s coffers at the end of the year, or be reallocated one year at a time, is a wasted opportunity. In future years, as the scheduled MCS appropriation increases, the amount unspent will be even higher.
There have been several successful efforts to strengthen Cal Grants in recent years, including the last two state budget agreements, which increased the size of low-income students’ non-tuition grants (2014-15) and the number of awards available (2015-16), and 2014 legislation by Senator Kevin de León which further increases low-income students’ non-tuition grants each year. Even after these increases, however, low-income students remain either unserved or underserved by the Cal Grant program. This year, Senator Marty Block has a bill (SB 1357) that would increase the non-tuition award for community college students. Assemblymember Jose Medina has legislation (AB 1721) that would both increase the number and size of Cal Grants available, both of which are top priorities for more than 20 higher education advocacy, student, civil rights, business and workforce groups across the state.
Clearly, the Legislature has the will to strengthen college affordability.
In unveiling his updated proposal, the Governor underscored the need for fiscal restraint. Luckily for legislators seeking to improve college affordability, there is a way to strengthen Cal Grants in 2016-17 within budget constraints. In both the Assembly and Senate budget subcommittees, recent hearings on financial aid have included discussion about unspent MCS funds going forward and whether they should be tapped to increase the number of Cal Grants available for low-income students. As soon as next week, these committees will vote on these very issues. Given the substantial need within the Cal Grant program, we urge the Legislature to reduce the ongoing scheduled MCS appropriations, and invest the savings into strengthening Cal Grants for low-income students as almost two dozen organizations have recommended.