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. 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.
 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.