California Governor’s 2016-17 Budget

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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