Update: Assembly Bill 19 was signed into law in 2017, paving the way to free community college for full-time, first-year students.
California’s economy is one of the world’s largest, and according to a new report, the state needs 1 million more workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2030 to keep up with economic demand.
The Public Policy Institute of California researchers found that more college graduates would mean a greater percentage of California workers earning higher salaries, more tax revenue for the state and waning desire for safety net assistance. But the state will never get there unless students can afford those increasingly expensive degrees.
A poll taken late last year shows that almost six in 10 Californians consider college affordability a big problem. And in response to those concerns, state lawmakers this year have devoted an unusual amount of attention to the topic, signaling that relief may soon be on the way.
Here’s what you need to know:
How generous is California’s taxpayer-funded financial aid compared to other states?
California’s public universities may be among the most costly for high-income students, but they’re among the least costly for disadvantaged students. That’s because the state does more than most to supplement need-based federal grants with state grants, the institute has found.
Each year, the state invests about $2 billion in scholarships called Cal Grants for roughly 360,000 students from low-income families. Those grants help cover the cost of tuition and fees for more than 60 percent of California State University students and more than half of those enrolled at a University of California campus or a community college.
The value of those grants rises with inflation, so recipients weren’t impacted earlier this year when the two state university systems modestly hiked tuition for the first time in six years.
Another $74 million goes to the state’s Middle Class Scholarship program.
“California leads the nation in college affordability with regard to tuition and fees,” said Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, a state agency responsible for administering taxpayer-funded grants she called “the most generous by far.”
But tuition and fees make up only half the cost of attendance, and because the state offers very little help covering gas, groceries or rent, students whose tuition and fees are paid in full are still scrambling to get by.
What’s the problem?
California’s cost of living is high, and college students from families with limited means haven’t been able to keep up.
The most needy teens qualifying for the most generous taxpayer-funded stipends for living expenses only get about $1,700 – for the whole year. And that’s just not enough. University of California, Berkeley students, for example, would need as much as $15,000 annually to cover those costs.
It has become common for students to take on two or three part-time jobs to make the money needed to bridge that gap. But when they do, their studies often suffer. Debbie Cochrane, vice president of The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit working to make higher education affordable for all, called the pattern a disturbing cycle.
“Far too many of our students are struggling to pay non-tuition costs,” she said.
The disconnect has led to anecdotal reports of housing and food insecurity, with students becoming homeless and seeking nourishment at campus food pantries.
“Students are couch surfing because they may not have a home and are hungry,” Cortez Alcalá said. “For them, the total cost of college has become untenable.”
What’s the Legislature doing about it?
Democratic lawmakers this year proposed several ambitious plans to address California’s college affordability crisis.
Assemblywoman Susan Eggman of Stockton introduced legislation that would have imposed a 1 percent tax on millionaires and used the revenue collected to make tuition free for all UC, CSU and community college students.
But the bill never even got a policy committee hearing due to a lack of support.
A coalition of Assembly Democrats led by Speaker Anthony Rendon of Paramount sought to eliminate the need for some 400,000 California college students from families making up to $150,000 a year to take out loans for living expenses.
Even still, Cortez Alcalá said the attention paid this year to financial aid should be celebrated.
“Worthy, progressive policies don’t happen overnight,” Cortez Alcalá said. “They take time to develop and discuss and pay for.”
Assembly Democrats also fought to preserve the scholarship program for middle class families, which Brown had sought to axe to save money.
So, did California do anything this year to make college more affordable?
Yes. The state budget Brown signed last week includes about $50 million in new funding for community college students—money targeted for living expenses. Recipients of Cal Grants, which help pay for tuition and fees, will now qualify for nearly $2,500 in new state grants for living expenses, depending on how many credits they take per year.
The budget also protects the Middle Class Scholarship program, even though critics have raised questions about whether the grants are serving the families it was designed to target.
Cochrane said she’s pleased that Sacramento is finally paying attention to college affordability. Her organization is part of a coalition that proposed several alternatives for the Legislature to consider next year when it revives talks on the Assembly’s “degrees not debt” plan.
“The focus on big proposals is exciting,” Cochrane said. “It signals a willingness and interest in dedicating new resources to higher education affordability. The next question to discuss is how to spend that money.”
Legislation authored by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles that seeks to make the first year of community college free for all may still move forward this year, even though it also failed to win funding in the state budget. Santiago said he wants to pay for the proposal with existing community college money, although he hasn’t said what would get cut to cover the difference. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León of Los Angeles said he backs the measure.
“We want our students to be successful when they graduate. We don’t want them burdened with debt,” Santiago said. “This proposal is one way to chip away at that problem.”