The Middle Class Scholarship’s Embarrassment of Riches

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times reported that 73,000 state university students will receive Middle Class Scholarship awards in 2014-15, fewer than half of the 156,000 originally anticipated. The Middle Class Scholarship program was created last year to provide tuition discounts to students with family incomes between $80,000 and $150,000. When we asked California Student Aid Commission staff how much the 2014-15 awards add up to, they told us about $60 million.  That means that about $47 million of the budgeted $107 million for 2014-15 will go unused.

How about putting that money back into Cal Grants, which help students with family incomes up to $80,400 for a family of three (well above California’s median income)? Our analyses have documented that it’s the lowest income students who face the most severe college affordability challenges, and University of California data show that the lowest income students are most likely to graduate from UC with student loan debt.

Part of the problem is that there aren’t enough Cal Grants to go around. For hundreds of thousands of needy students – a group with an average income below $21,000 and a typical family size of three – winning a Cal Grant is even tougher than beating the odds in Vegas. That’s because students who apply for aid more than one year after high school graduation compete for just 22,500 awards authorized annually. In 2013-14, there were 16 eligible applicants for every available award. With $47 million more, the state could fund nearly 20,000 additional competitive grants to support the very students for whom college is least affordable.

When so many low-income students are being turned away, we should at least be redirecting unspent Middle Class Scholarship money to the Cal Grant program to support students who need help the most. – Debbie Cochrane and Matthew La Rocque

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