Tomorrow or Saturday, the Legislature will vote on the 2013-14 Budget Act. Included in the budget at the behest of the Assembly Speaker, and agreed to by the Senate pro Tempore and the Governor, is a new Middle Class Scholarship Program. Once fully phased in, the program is projected to cost $305 million annually and offer tuition discounts to students with family incomes likely between $80,000 and $150,000.
But California already has a middle class scholarship. The Cal Grant program, the state’s need-based financial aid program, serves students with family incomes up to $83,100 (for a family of four) – well above California’s median income. Still, many of our most financially needy college students – those with family incomes below the federal poverty line – are either completely un-served or dramatically under-served by the Cal Grant program, despite the common belief that the state is meeting their needs. Less than one-quarter of California’s very low-income students who apply for aid receive a Cal Grant. A major cause is there just isn’t enough money appropriated to the Cal Grant Program to serve all eligible students.
With hundreds of thousands of low- and truly middle-income students facing severe cost barriers, why throw hundreds of millions of dollars at a new program to help students from families with incomes as high as $150,000? Investing that money in Cal Grants would get a far bigger bang for the buck. Higher income students are already on track to attend and graduate from college, while lower income students face such large financial obstacles that they drop out, graduate in lower numbers, or fail to attend altogether.
The fiscal priorities contained in the budget agreement are disheartening. However, legislation pending in both the Senate and the Assembly would restore recent cuts to already inadequate grants for the lowest income recipients and increase the availability of awards for both low- and middle-income students. Putting more money into the Cal Grant program would go a long way towards better serving middle-income students. And low-income students would be better served, too.