California Access & Success

California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation today (AB 19 from Assemblymember Santiago) that is widely reported to make community college tuition free for Californians. If fully funded by the legislature, the bill would provide dollars sufficient to cover tuition for first-time, full-time students who do not qualify for the California College Promise Grant (known until last month as the Board of Governors Fee Waiver), which has long fully covered community college tuition for students with demonstrated financial need.

But the bill actually provides much broader and more meaningful flexibility to colleges than is widely understood. The bill does not require colleges to eliminate tuition for these additional students, but instead allocates money to colleges to spend in ways that will increase college access and success and decrease inequities in which students get to and through college. Community colleges “may” use funds to cover tuition for those students who don’t already benefit from the fee waiver, but they don’t have to, and that is a good thing.

To qualify for the new funds, colleges must agree to implement certain student-oriented reforms, such as partnering with local school districts to foster college awareness among students before they leave high school, using evidence-based practices to assess students’ academic readiness, creating guided pathways to help students complete programs and degrees without getting lost, and ensuring students’ access to all the need-based financial resources available to them. 

These details are important, because a meaningful promise to increase college access, affordability, and success for California’s students has to address more than just tuition. College enrollment means little if students don’t know which courses to take or can’t get into them, if they’re stuck in unnecessary developmental coursework, or if they can’t afford their textbooks or transportation to campus. These are very real obstacles that hold students back from succeeding in college even when tuition is free. And the structure of AB 19 allows future funding to be used to help students overcome these hurdles. Here are just some of the important ways that colleges could choose to spend funds appropriated for the bill:

  • For low-income students with children, the lack of affordable childcare can be a tremendous obstacle to persisting in college. Money provided under AB 19 could be used to support childcare centers on campuses, or direct aid to low-income parents to help them cover childcare costs.

  • The new funds could be used to provide transportation passes or textbook vouchers for low-income students, better positioning them to get to campus and pass their courses.

  • More than 20 community colleges in California do not offer federal student loans, in part because they don’t feel they have the resources they need to administer the loan program responsibly. Offering federal loans is a requirement for receiving AB 19 funds; these colleges could use these funds to support loan counseling and other efforts that would enable them to reenter the loan program.

With the lowest community college tuition in the country, and an existing financial aid program that covers tuition for low- and middle-income students, challenges outside of tuition are almost certainly bigger determinants of student success at most community colleges in California. Thankfully, the bill Governor Brown signed today allows colleges the choice for how best to support the enrollment and completion of their students.

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The Institute for College Access & Success and ACCT, in collaboration with the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office examine the effect financial aid and assessment policy have on graduation and transfer rates.

This post originally appeared on the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) blog

By Debbie Cochrane, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS)

Earlier this year, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) and ACCT, in collaboration with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO), set out to explore community college students’ rates of transfer and graduation, and how those rates differed by students’ financial status (both their own ability to pay for college and the amount of financial aid they receive).  This effort was an attempt to expand upon the CCCCO’s Student Success Scorecard efforts, which track first-time students’ success at reaching particular academic milestones but have not included factors related to students’ financial status.  In line with other work on student success and financial status, we found that students with less ability to pay graduated and transferred at lower rates than those with more financial cushion, but that financial aid helped to close the gap.

Our findings also shed interesting light on the importance of college assessment policy, and its particular significance to financial aid recipients. Three out of four California community college students in our sample attempted math or English coursework below transfer level at a CCC, signaling that they had been assessed as being unprepared for college-level coursework. The same is true for 81 percent of students who received a financial aid package that included a institutional fee waiver, Pell Grant, and state Cal Grant, which is particularly surprising given the academic merit standards students must meet to be eligible for a Cal Grant. Eligibility for Cal Grants, the primary state grant aid program in California, requires having a minimum high school grade point average (GPA) of 2.0. Most students’ grades far exceed this threshold: data from the California Student Aid Commission show that the average Cal Grant recipient at a community college has a GPA of 3.0.

The fact that developmental coursework was so prevalent among a group of students who have demonstrated academic merit raises questions. Is the alignment between high school and college curricula so disjointed that students who leave high school with a B average are truly not capable of succeeding in college-level work? Or is it the colleges’ assessment of students’ capabilities that is the issue, such that college-ready students are being placed into developmental coursework unnecessarily?

Indeed, research suggests that many students placed into developmental coursework could succeed in college-level courses, rendering the developmental coursework unnecessary. Importantly, students who take developmental coursework have lower odds of success, and those who do succeed take more time to graduate. In other words, overly aggressive placement of students into developmental coursework isn’t simply duplicative; it has the potential to derail students from reaching their academic goals.

These are particularly problematic issues for financial aid recipients, given strict limits on the number of years students can receive federal Pell Grants (six years) or state Cal Grants (four years).  And it isn’t just grant aid: in our study, 91 percent of students receiving an aid package including a federal student loan had taken developmental coursework. Given these students’ need to repay loans after they leave college, it is particularly important that unnecessary barriers, such as overly aggressive placement into developmental coursework, are removed to increase students’ odds of graduating or transferring.

Within California, developmental placement policies have undergone reforms in recent years, but more remains to be done. A bill currently working its way through the Legislature, AB 705 (Irwin), would require that colleges consider high school performance when determining whether students need remediation. However, whether driven by state policy or not, college leaders must ensure that their own institutional policies do not place students into developmental coursework unnecessarily, causing undue hardship for their most vulnerable students. TICAS and ACCT strongly encourage colleges to use multiple measures – including high school transcripts and test scores – to assess students in order to reduce the likelihood of placing students into developmental coursework unnecessarily. Colleges can also ensure that students receive the targeted support and counseling they need after being placed into developmental coursework, so they understand their progression out of remediation and into – and through – a program of study. These steps will help all students to succeed, and particularly the financial aid recipients for whom the stakes are particularly high.

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After a budget season with unprecedented focus on financial aid, the 2017-18 California State budget agreement now on Governor Brown’s desk includes several important policy gains.

Most critically, the budget includes welcome and long-overdue increases to financial aid for full-time community college students to help cover total college costs that can exceed $20,000 a year.  Due to an increase to the Full-Time Student Success Grant (FTSSG), a program championed by the Assembly two years ago, Cal Grant recipients taking 12 or more credits per term will see an increase of up to $400 per year (for a maximum award size of $1,000). Since its creation, the FTSSG program has received broad support with even the Brown Administration proposing to increase student eligibility and the maximum award size.  And the creation of a new financial aid program, the Community College Completion Grant championed by Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, will provide eligible students who take additional credits (at least 30 in total per year) during the fall, spring, and/or summer terms with up to $2,000 more per year. While both of these programs are only available to students who receive Cal Grant awards, and hundreds of thousands of community college students who are eligible for Cal Grants are turned away each year due to insufficient funding, these increases add up to substantial new aid availability for those who can access it.  The additional aid will enable students to spend more time in class and studying, rather than working to cover total college costs, increasing their odds of graduating and graduating faster. (Critically, the budget also includes $150 million to support community colleges’ development of ‘guided pathways,’ so that students who want to take 15 or more credits per term can be assured that the specific credits they need for their program are available to them.) 

The budget also includes other key financial aid improvements: 

  • As proposed by the Brown Administration, the California Student Aid Commission will get greater authority to make competitive Cal Grant award offers to students at the time students are making decisions about whether and where to enroll in college. There are only 25,750 competitive Cal Grants (i.e., grants for students who are not recent high school graduates) available each year for more than 300,000 eligible applicants, and the need to stay under that strict cap leads to long delays before many of the awards are received by students. The budget agreement will allow CSAC to make more offers early on, without risking exceeding their authority.
  • Community college students who receive Cal Grant C awards (designated for students in certain career technical programs) will see their grant double, from $547 to $1,094.
  • The maximum Cal Grant B access award, which helps low-income students cover non-tuition college costs, will see a small increase (thanks to 2014 legislation, SB 174 and SB 798, from Senator De León), from $1,670 to $1,672.

In addition to these changes, the budget once again postpones the scheduled reduction to the Cal Grant received by students at private WASC-accredited colleges, and maintains the Middle Class Scholarship program that Governor Brown had proposed phasing out.

We are grateful for the Legislature’s actions to strengthen financial aid and enable more California community college students – whose out-of-pocket costs, despite low tuition and fees, can exceed those of their peers at public four-year schools – to attend full time.  Yet even while recognizing the importance of these budget gains, in a recent op-ed Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon acknowledged “we haven’t done everything we can for students in need.” We concur, and look forward to continuing to work together with the Legislature and Administration to bring college costs within reach for low-income Californians. 

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It’s clear we need more student aid in California, and $1.5 billion could go a long way to reduce our state’s gaping inequities in college affordability and completion if spent right. However, the California Assembly’s $1.5 billion “Degrees Not Debt Scholarship” proposal unveiled today is unlikely to achieve those goals. While we applaud the desire to dedicate substantial new resources towards financial aid, and the proposal’s recognition that the cost of college extends well beyond the cost of tuition, the Assembly plan would provide generous awards to students with little or no need, and far less help to those with the biggest affordability barriers and most burdensome debt.

Here are our top questions and concerns:

  • How will the scholarships reduce debt burdens, as the program name suggests? We estimate that a low-income UC student would receive about $2,000 more in aid than they currently do, while a student with a six-figure income could get more than $15,000 more per year.  Yet half of all UC graduates who leave school with debt have family incomes under $52,000. Further, UC students who graduate with loans have average debt around $21,000. From the perspective of debt reduction, giving higher income students $15,000 per year is excessive, especially when most don’t borrow, and giving lower income students an additional $2,000 per year is not nearly enough.
     
  • What will the impact be on students of color? Cal Grant recipients at public colleges are more likely to be Latino, Black, Native American, or Pacific Islander, and more than half of UC and CSU students in these groups have family incomes of $50,000 or less.[1] Yet while low-income students’ disproportionate debt burden shows that their Cal Grants are not sufficient to address their needs, Cal Grant recipients would get smaller “Degrees Not Debt” scholarships than those with six-figure incomes. Many of the higher income students, who are disproportionately white, don’t even need the aid as defined under federal and state law.
     
  • Why does the plan leave out students at the schools where affordability challenges are often most severe? In many regions across the state, low-income community college students face higher college costs than UC or CSU students, yet community college students aren’t eligible for the scholarships. The Assembly’s separate proposal to increase Cal Grants for full-time community college students will help the small proportion of students who get a Cal Grant. But hundreds of thousands of students at the community colleges – as well as other colleges – can’t get Cal Grants because the program isn’t sufficiently funded, and half of them are living in poverty. Those students would get no additional support under the Assembly plan. Why should UC students with six-figure incomes get scholarships of $15,000 when high-achieving community college students living in poverty can’t get a Cal Grant worth a small fraction of that? For perspective, for a billion dollars, the state could give every eligible Cal Grant applicant an award.
     
  • Why does the Assembly plan diverge so sharply from the plan developed by the LAO, at the Assembly’s request? Last year, the Legislature, championed by the Assembly, tasked the Legislative Analyst’s Office with developing a proposal to create debt-free college options for California. Fully two-thirds of the LAO’s $3.3 billion proposal was slated to support community college students, so that students at all public colleges had a viable, full-time, debt-free path to graduation. The high share of estimated LAO program costs needed to help community college students underscores how important community college students are to the state, and how far the state is from supporting them sufficiently. Yet the Assembly “Degrees Not Debt Scholarship” proposal leaves them out. Why don’t students at community colleges, where most of the state’s low-income students and students of color enroll, deserve the option to enroll full time, too, when full-time enrollment greatly increases students’ odds of completion? Wouldn’t giving community college students a true full-time option help more of them transfer to UC and CSU?

California has major problems with college affordability and completion, but neither will be solved by the “Degrees Not Debt Scholarship” proposal. We hope that legislators will commit to retooling the proposal so that it addresses the realities facing California’s low- and truly middle-income college students.


[1] Author’s analysis of  the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 2007-08, the most recent publicly available data on California segments’ enrollment by race/ethnicity and income.

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Debbie Cochrane, TICAS vice president, provided expert testimony on college affordability before a joint hearing of the California Assembly’s Higher Education Committee and Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance on Monday, February 27. Her testimony described which students face the greatest affordability barriers, and included new TICAS research showing the severity of the affordability problem for California’s low-income students, and why free tuition is not the solution. (Debbie Cochrane's testimony starts at the 20:35 mark.)

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A new report released last month provides some staggering figures on an incredibly important topic – state disinvestment from higher education in California – and rightly makes the case that shortchanging public colleges shortchanges our future. Unfortunately, the report makes the erroneous claim that eliminating tuition at public colleges will eliminate student debt for the students who attend them. This is simply not the case. In California, state and institutional financial aid programs are among the most generous in the nation in helping students pay for tuition charges at all three public systems. In fact, most Californians who leave public colleges with debt already attended college tuition-free. The real affordability challenges for California’s public college students are paying for non-tuition college costs including room and board, books and supplies, and transportation.

Consider the University of California (UC), where tuition charges are highest among the state’s public institutions: UC’s Blue and Gold plan promises that no student with family income under $80,000 will need to pay tuition, and in fact UC also gives aid to many students above that threshold to at least partially cover tuition. If tuition charges equated to student debt, then only students with family incomes above $80,000 would leave school with debt. Yet data from UC show that is not the case: we estimate that half of the UC graduates who leave school with debt have family incomes under $54,000 – students whose tuition UC guarantees it will cover.[1]  Graduates’ likelihood of leaving school with debt decreases with income – students from the lowest income bracket are three times as likely as students from the highest income bracket to graduate with debt – because higher income students are more likely to be able to afford what they are asked to pay. Available data on debt loads by income for other public college graduates, in both California and across the nation, show this same trend. 

In fact, the majority of students’ costs for attending public colleges and universities are not tuition charges, but rather the living expenses students incur to buy their books, get to campus, and stay housed and fed. Yet, while tuition-focused aid programs in California have kept up with increases in tuition, the same cannot be said about the primary state grant that helps students with non-tuition college costs. If it had kept pace with costs, the Cal Grant B access award, $900 in 1969-70, would be more than $6,300 today. Instead, it is just $1,670.

State disinvestment from public higher education is a significant problem, and one that demands both federal and state policymakers’ attention. But eliminating students’ need to borrow requires more than just free tuition, because most Californians who leave school with debt already had free tuition. Policymakers interested in improving college affordability and reducing student debt should start by looking at who has debt and why, and increase grant aid for students struggling to pay for non-tuition college costs.


[1] Includes dependent students only as UC does not release information on independent student debt loads. Ninety-three percent of UC undergraduates are dependent.

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California Governor Jerry Brown last week released his proposed 2017-18 California state budget, which includes a proposal to phase out the Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) program. The MCS program, created in 2013, was designed to serve California students from families with incomes above typical Cal Grant income thresholds (above about $80,000 at the time) and up to $150,000 who don’t receive much other grant aid. For reference, median household income in California is just under $62,000 in 2015 dollars.

Since the program was created, we have raised questions about whether the money would be better spent on the lower income students who face the highest financial hurdles getting to and through college. We still believe this to be the right question. However, data from the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) show that some lower income students do receive MCS awards. During the 2015-16 academic year, about 6,300 students (13% of all MCS recipients) had incomes within the Cal Grant B income range (up to about $50,000 for a family of four), and an additional 12,700 students (26% of all MCS recipients) had incomes within the higher Cal Grant A range (up to about $90,000 for a family of four). We estimate that these 19,000 students – who represent 39% of all MCS recipients in 2015-16 – received up to 51% of MCS grant dollars.

Why is a program designed to help upper-middle-income students also helping lower income students? Because there are substantial gaps in the state Cal Grant program, which is designed to help lower income students pay for college. Most critically, there are not enough Cal Grants available for all students who apply and meet the financial and academic requirements. Whereas recent high school graduates are entitled to a Cal Grant, all other eligible Cal Grant applicants must compete for a very limited number (25,750) of awards. In 2015-16, there were 14 eligible applicants competing for every grant, with over 300,000 turned away. The CSAC data suggest that some of these students who qualify for but don’t get a Cal Grant end up getting an MCS grant instead.

The huge gap between the number of applicants eligible for competitive Cal Grants and the number of awards available contributes to the substantial affordability challenges facing low-income students. While not by design, the MCS program has helped to fill a narrow slice of that gap, and it is important that the Legislature protect this progress if the MCS does get phased out. Redirecting the $117 million annual MCS allocation to the better targeted Cal Grant program would result in over 18,000 more competitive awards per year, increasing qualified applicants’ chances of receiving a competitive grant from one in 14 to about one in eight. And redirecting $60 million – the 51% of annual MCS spending that we estimate goes to students with family incomes within Cal Grant thresholds – is the least that should be done, particularly if the goal of phasing out the MCS program is to protect financial aid for lower income students.

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Earlier this year we published a map of California that showed the differences in net price – the full cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships – for low-income students at public colleges in nine regions across the state.  Counterintuitively, our analysis showed that low-tuition institutions may not have low net prices.  In many cases a California community college (CCC) – by far the lowest tuition school – had a much higher net price than the nearby University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) campus.  Since publishing our map we have gotten many questions about why this is, given how different tuition levels are across the colleges.    

One important factor is that the total costs of college are not nearly as different for students across the segments as their tuition charges might suggest.  Total costs include tuition and fees, books and supplies, housing and food, transportation, and other college-related expenses.

Certainly, higher tuition colleges cost more overall than lower tuition institutions before financial aid is taken into account.  But they do not cost exponentially more.  Total college costs go far beyond tuition and fees for students at all types of colleges: the California Student Aid Commission estimates that in 2015-16, students at any college living off campus without parents – the way that most students at all three public segments live – incurred about $18,000 in non-tuition costs.  While there are sizeable differences in tuition and fees alone, compared to the total cost of attending a CCC, the total cost of college was only 23 percent more at CSU and 59 percent more at UC.

Another factor that drives net prices is the amount of grant aid available to students at each college.  Grant aid – money that does not need to be repaid – reduces the amount that students need to pay out of pocket for college.  It comes primarily from the federal government, the state, and the colleges themselves.  In 2015-16, the average amount of grant aid available per low-income student (i.e., Pell Grant recipient) was approximately $5,400 at CCCs, $10,300 at CSU, and $25,200 at UC.  The differences in state and institutional aid per low-income student were particularly large, as shown in the table below. 

Importantly, not all aid goes to low-income students. Cal Grants reach middle-income students as well, and some programs, including the Middle Class Scholarship and institutional grants at UC, reach students with six-figure family incomes.  Still, sharp differences in aid availability persist when we calculate average aid across all students.  Per full-time equivalent (FTE) student, the average amount of grant aid was approximately $2,300 at CCCs, $6,400 at CSU, and $10,200 at UC.

These wide disparities in grant aid, combined with the proportionally narrower disparities in total college costs, explain why the lowest tuition colleges in California are often the most expensive.  UC students’ total costs are 59 percent more than CCC students’ total costs, but UC students get 300+ percent more grant aid. The additional grant aid more than covers the cost difference between the colleges, leaving UC students better positioned to attend college full time without excessive work or debt.  

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Earlier this week, in the wake of negotiations with the Legislature, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the 2016-17 state budget into law. Disappointingly, it includes no increases to the number of Cal Grants available for low-income students, and even takes money out of financial aid by redirecting $42 million in unspent Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) program funds elsewhere.

On the other hand, there are a few positive developments in the budget agreement for California students and college affordability. The maximum Cal Grant B will be increased by $22 thanks to 2014 legislation by Senate pro Tem Kevin de León which was formalized through the budget. The Full-Time Student Success Grant (FTSSG), created in last year’s budget agreement, is being expanded to allow more full-time California Community College students to receive an additional $600. The budget also includes funding to support innovative efforts at community colleges to improve students’ access to financial aid programs and strengthen coordination with local education agencies, among other goals.

Interestingly, as requested by the Assembly, the budget agreement also calls upon the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) to study the ways in which state-based financial aid can be strengthened to reduce low- and middle-income Californians’ reliance on student loan debt by helping students cover more of their college costs. Among the options the LAO will study is the consolidation of the state’s many financial aid programs – including Cal Grants, the MCS, the FTSSG, and institutional aid programs at the community colleges, California State University, and University of California.

There are several components of this study that make it worth watching:

  • The focus is on total college costs – not just tuition. For most California students, tuition and fees are a fraction of total costs; at the CCCs, for example, where fees are among the lowest in the nation, non-tuition costs including room, board, transportation, books, and supplies can represent more than 90 percent of the total cost of attendance. Yet state and institutional aid programs are currently designed primarily to subsidize tuition and fees.
     
  • It includes all public colleges. Within California public colleges, only the University of California has been able to implement a strategy designed to bring the total cost of college within reach. At others, including the community colleges where the majority of low-income students enroll, there simply aren’t enough resources available to do so. This helps to explain why it is often more expensive for low-income students to attend a community college than a public four-year institution.
     
  • It acknowledges that the burden of debt falls most heavily on lower income students. There’s a widespread misperception that existing grant aid programs bring college within reach for low-income students, whereas higher income students must take on debt. However, existing data doesn’t bear that out: At UC, graduates with family incomes under $53,000 are much more likely than graduates from higher income groups to have debt.

Taking a step back to assess how California’s many financial aid programs are working together is key to understanding and addressing some of the underlying inequities facing low- and middle-income students in affording and succeeding in college. There’s no way to know at this point what will come of this study, but the fact that the study was requested and the specific parameters provided are encouraging signs that the Legislature and Governor recognize that the status quo – which shortchanges low-income students and the colleges that serve them – needs improvement.  

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Earlier today, California Governor Jerry Brown unveiled his updated budget proposal for 2016-17. It includes a small but important expansion to a community college financial aid program created last year, which helps low-income students enroll full time. Under the expansion, the benefit will extend to more students enrolled in career technical education programs.

However, there’s more that can and should be done in the 2016-17 state budget to make college affordable for more Californians. As we’ve noted previously, this budget – as did the last – assumes unrealistically high spending in the Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) program. Funding for the program is set by law, and the amount that has been set is more than enough to serve the students eligible for the program, both now and in the foreseeable future. 

In 2015-16, about $34 million of the appropriated amount went unspent, and now that the year is almost over the Governor is proposing to spend those funds elsewhere. We project that even more of the appropriated MCS funding – $41 million – will go unspent in 2016-17. In the same year, hundreds of thousands of eligible Cal Grant applicants will not receive grants because too few are available, and many others will struggle to cover non-tuition costs with a grant that has not kept pace with inflation. 

Leaving unnecessary appropriations in the budget either to return to the state’s coffers at the end of the year, or be reallocated one year at a time, is a wasted opportunity. In future years, as the scheduled MCS appropriation increases, the amount unspent will be even higher.

There have been several successful efforts to strengthen Cal Grants in recent years, including the last two state budget agreements, which increased the size of low-income students’ non-tuition grants (2014-15) and the number of awards available (2015-16), and 2014 legislation by Senator Kevin de León which further increases low-income students’ non-tuition grants each year. Even after these increases, however, low-income students remain either unserved or underserved by the Cal Grant program. This year, Senator Marty Block has a bill (SB 1357) that would increase the non-tuition award for community college students. Assemblymember Jose Medina has legislation (AB 1721) that would both increase the number and size of Cal Grants available, both of which are top priorities for more than 20 higher education advocacy, student, civil rights, business and workforce groups across the state.

Clearly, the Legislature has the will to strengthen college affordability.

In unveiling his updated proposal, the Governor underscored the need for fiscal restraint. Luckily for legislators seeking to improve college affordability, there is a way to strengthen Cal Grants in 2016-17 within budget constraints. In both the Assembly and Senate budget subcommittees, recent hearings on financial aid have included discussion about unspent MCS funds going forward and whether they should be tapped to increase the number of Cal Grants available for low-income students. As soon as next week, these committees will vote on these very issues. Given the substantial need within the Cal Grant program, we urge the Legislature to reduce the ongoing scheduled MCS appropriations, and invest the savings into strengthening Cal Grants for low-income students as almost two dozen organizations have recommended

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