Press Release/Statement | July 30, 2020

Out-of-Pocket College Costs Remain Unaffordable for Low-Income Californians, Strengthened State and Institutional Aid Can Help

Oakland, CA – Despite facing the lowest tuition in the nation, low-income students attending a California community college typically pay more for college than do students at the state’s costlier university systems, according to a new analysis from The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). What College Costs for Low-Income Californians: 2020 looks at the out-of-pocket costs faced by low-income students attending public colleges and universities across the state and their bearing on weekly work hours, student debt, and enrollment – all of which impact student success and completion. The majority of Black, Latino, and Native American undergraduates are low income – coming from families with annual incomes less than $30,000.

California students often pay more at community colleges than public universities because total college costs – including books and supplies and living expenses – are much more similar than published tuition, and the grant aid available to help cover these costs varies substantially across the California Community College (CCC), California State University (CSU), and University of California (UC) systems. For example, while UC students’ total costs are 54 percent higher than CCC students’ total costs, UC students get 300+ percent more grant aid.

While the majority of the state’s college students live off-campus and without family, for the first time this analysis examines net prices for students in different living arrangements, including those who live with family or on campus. Despite identifying some affordability bright spots, net costs for low-income students typically exceed what students could reasonably earn through a modest amount of work. Within all three living arrangements, low-income students at most colleges examined would have to work at least 15 hours per week to cover college costs after subtracting grants and scholarships, an amount of work that can negatively impact academic success.

“Low-income students at public colleges in California have long been unable to afford college costs, including basic needs, through their own resources, grants, and a moderate amount of work, and this has only been magnified by the ongoing health and economic crises,” said TICAS associate California program director and report author Laura Szabo-Kubitz. “State coffers are relatively thin, but protecting current financial aid investments and shoring up aid for students most impacted by the crisis will support the state’s recovery.”

Increased recognition of college affordability challenges has led to calls to reform the state’s Cal Grant program, the nation’s largest state grant program that helps 400,000 Californians each year pay for college. Legislative reform proposals were moving forward before being halted by COVID-19. Until the state recovers economically, policymakers would be wise to look at other avenues to improve college affordability for low-income Californians.

Institutional grant aid is a significant source of financial aid that can work alongside state and federal grants to reduce Californians’ financial barriers to college. Institutional Grant Aid at California Colleges: A Primer, also released today by TICAS, explores the scale and diversity of institutional aid programs across the state’s public and private nonprofit colleges and universities.

“Colleges’ decisions about how to distribute their own financial aid reflect institutional priorities, but we know very little about those decisions, particularly at private colleges,” said Lindsay Ahlman, TICAS associate director of research and knowledge management. “By directing available institutional aid funds to students with need first and foremost, colleges can help lift historically marginalized students onto a more equal playing field, and support broader efforts to correct for persistent injustices in higher education.”

To learn more about TICAS’ net price and institutional financial aid studies, please see What College Costs for Low-Income Californians: 2020 and Institutional Grant Aid at California Colleges: A Primer.


The Institute for College Access & Success is a trusted source of research, design, and advocacy for student-centered public policies that promote affordability, accountability, and equity in higher education. For more information see or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.