Both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 California state budget agreements contained crucial and long-overdue increases to need-based financial aid, including Cal Grants. Those investments are helping to make college more accessible for thousands of low-income Californians, though severe affordability gaps remain for the state’s lowest income students.
The good news is that the legislature can continue closing those gaps in 2016-17, and there are resources available to do so right in financial aid’s backyard.
The Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) program was created in 2013 to reduce tuition for middle-income students at the University of California and the California State University who were ineligible for grant aid yet unable to comfortably afford tuition. Last year, lawmakers downsized the program in order to bring eligibility terms more in line with Cal Grants and to exclude students with substantial financial resources, resulting in projected savings of $112 million for 2016-17.
Yet it appears that the program still has more money than it needs, and that even more savings could be achieved without affecting MCS recipients. In both of the years that the Middle Class Scholarship has been available, there have been far fewer eligible applicants than anticipated. Still-nascent awareness about the program could explain the underutilization in 2014-15 – the first year of implementation. But even in the wake of concerted efforts by the California Student Aid Commission and California public colleges to bolster outreach to students and families, the program still has a significant surplus in 2015-16.
When the MCS has a surplus, it means that dollars intended to help Californians afford college are being returned to the state’s coffers. For 2016-17, we project that about $41 million will go unused. Combined with the 2016-17 budget savings from the eligibility changes agreed to last year, that’s a total of about $153 million previously scheduled to be spent on the MCS in 2016-17 that will not be spent on the MCS. By 2017-18, when the Middle Class Scholarship will be fully phased in, this amount could grow to $200 million or more.*
As we’ve previously argued, savings from the Middle Class Scholarship program should remain in financial aid and be reinvested in Cal Grants specifically. Some of it already has been: for instance, the 2015-16 budget, which scaled back MCS eligibility, also increased the annual number of Competitive Cal Grants, which serve students who do not transition straight from high school to college. However, far more could be done given the amount of MCS savings. The $41 million surplus in 2016-17 could increase the Cal Grant B access award, which helps low-income students pay for non-tuition costs of college, by $175. Alternatively, it could increase the number of new Competitive awards available annually by nearly 5,700.** The legislature could triple those increases by reinvesting all of the MCS savings – the surplus as well as ongoing savings realized through eligibility changes – into Cal Grants. Both the Cal Grant B access award and Competitive Cal Grants serve the state’s lowest income students, but not nearly well enough.
For more on how and why to deepen investment in the Cal Grant program, see the report released by TICAS and twenty other organizations last week.
* Projections of future spending are based on 2015-16 MCS award utilization. Projections reflect the scheduled phase-in of award coverage, from 50 percent in 2015-16 to 100 percent in 2017-18.
** Projections of 2016-17 Cal Grant awards and dollars are based on data from the California Department of Finance: California Student Aid Commission, The Cal Grant Chart: Baseline Budget Forecast thru end of Sep 2015 – updated November 20, 2015.