Press Release/Statement | September 7, 2023

Updated Analysis Finds Persisting Inequities in Debt at Graduation among California State University Bachelor’s Degree Recipients

Racially Marginalized and Low-Income Students Bear the Heaviest Burdens of College Costs and Debt Upon Graduation, Despite Overall Decreases in Borrowing 

More than one-third of California State University (CSU) bachelor’s degree recipients in 2021-22 left college with student debt, and nearly two –thirds of those graduates had family incomes less than $54,000, according to CSU At All Costs: The Inequitable Burdens of Affording a College Degree, an updated analysis released today by the Cal State Student Association (CSSA) and The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS).

The analysis examines updated campus-level information on student costs, debt burdens, and graduation rates across the CSU’s 23 campuses and found that students of all racial and ethnic groups took out student loans at a lower rate compared to data in our original 2017 report, progress that CSSA and TICAS commend. Overall, 38 percent of 2021-22 CSU bachelor’s degree recipients had incurred debt, a notable decline from 52 percent in 2015-16.

However, CSSA and TICAS express their shared concerns that racially marginalized students continue to be more likely to incur debt than their white and Asian peers, with Black or African American bachelor’s degree recipients the most likely (63%) to graduate with debt.

“While we applaud the ongoing efforts of CSU and state leaders to close persisting equity gaps in college access, affordability, and success, we are still troubled with the fact that the burdens of college costs are carried most heavily by lower income and racially marginalized students,” said Manny Rodriguez, California Director of Policy & Advocacy at TICAS. “Being intentional about closing equity gaps in affordability and success is more important than ever given the chilling effects of the Supreme Court decision to end affirmative action nationally, student loan repayments resuming in Fall 2023 after an extended pandemic-induced pause, proposed CSU tuition increases, and rising costs of living.”

A major factor why low-income and racially marginalized CSU students rely on debt to pay for college is because what they must pay out of pocket after available grant aid to cover total college costs – also known as the net price – is more than what can be reasonably covered through employment while enrolled. Research finds that working more than 15 hours per week can be detrimental to academic success yet at the majority of CSU campuses low-income students would have to work at least 20 hours per week to cover these net prices that include critical non-tuition costs like housing, food, books and supplies, and transportation that compose the majority of CSU students’ total college costs.

“CSSA is proud to present our latest report with TICAS, ‘CSU at all Costs: The Inequitable Burdens of Affording a College Degree,’ which delves deep into the financial struggles that CSU students continue to face. Despite an ongoing commitment by state policymakers to enhance college affordability in California, we find that our students are grappling more than ever. Rising living costs coupled with lagging need-based financial aid have pushed many to a breaking point. With non-tuition college costs surpassing $20,000 annually for numerous students, those under-resourced are left with few viable options. They either clock in excessive work hours, amass debt through loans, grapple with basic needs insecurity, or curtail their enrollment, all in a bid to bridge the growing affordability gap. Such disproportionate impacts on our historically marginalized students underscore a pressing need for our state to bolster its investments, especially in need-based financial aid programs. The time for change is now, and together, we can pave a brighter path for all CSU students.” said Dominic Quan Treseler, CSSA President.

To support students’ ability to afford total college costs and earn a meaningful degree in a timely manner, the report’s recommendations include establishing a CSU Board of Trustees commitment to strengthening affordability for all college costs including those beyond statewide tuition, providing greater transparency on how the CSU is using its State University Grant (SUG) funding to cover students’ total college costs, supporting budget advocacy to fund Cal Grant Reform which prioritizes the least resourced students, and addressing the specific steps the CSU plans to take to mitigate the disproportionate debt burdens and college affordability challenges faced by Black and other racially marginalized students.

The CSU At All Costs report is an update of the 2017 report Where Debt Comes Due at CSU, and reexamines trends in college affordability and its impact on student success.