For years, California has led the way in college affordability—yet too many students still struggle to pay for school. Policymakers are debating reforms to state financial aid, including significant expansion of the Cal Grant and stronger support for students’ living expenses. Comprehensive reform of this kind would dramatically expand access to financial aid and move the state toward a debt-free system. Below are eight points that underscore why those reforms are so critical.1

Key takeaway: In California, more students are enrolling in college. This means that more students need aid.

1. More students are going to college than ever before.

California was one of just seven states that saw enrollment in public colleges increase between 2013 and 2018. This increased demand for higher education creates an increased need for aid.

2. California’s college students are often low-income and may represent the greatest need for financial aid in the country.

California has more Pell Grant recipients than forty-five states have undergraduate college students,2 and roughly one-third of the approximately 2.9 million undergraduates enrolled in public institutions in California live below the poverty line.3 Community college students have even greater need: Nearly 50 percent of California community college students enrolled during the 2015–16 academic year had an annual income of less than $30,000.

Table 1
Students at California Colleges with Incomes of Less Than $30,000
Income Under $27,683 (NPSAS 2015-16, Adjusted for Inflation) Headcount—Undergrad Only (2017–18 IPEDS) Full-Time Equivalent—Undergrad Only (2017–18 IPEDS)
UC System 37.7% 86,744 82,888
Cal State System 45.9% 217,258 180,125
California Community Colleges 49.0% 1,077,158 443,602
Note: income described reflects 2019 U.S. dollar values.

Source: National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

3. Student parents lack the resources to contribute to their own college costs.

Roughly 20 percent of Californians enrolled in the state are parents; and across the state, 62 percent of California students with dependent children lack the resources to contribute to their own college costs. This means that more than half of students with children in California rely entirely on financial aid (or excessive work) to pay for their education.

Key takeaway: California tuition prices continue to rise, and non-tuition costs remain a crucial factor when assessing college affordability in California.

4. Tuition and fees at the UCs and CSUs have more than doubled and nearly tripled, respectively, in the past two decades.

Between 2000 and 2018, inflation-adjusted tuition and fees more than doubled at the UCs and nearly tripled at the CSUs. UC tuition and fees are now almost $14,000, and these costs at the CSUs exceed $7,000. This increase is mitigated in part for many low-income students by $1.4 billion in need-based institutional aid4 but still creates the perception of a high sticker price and discourages enrollment.

5. Most students who are eligible for the Cal Grant do not receive it.

Most students who have low enough income and wealth to be eligible for the Cal Grant, the state’s largest financial aid award for college students, do not receive it due to limited availability. And many of those who have been left out direly need the support: more than half of the eligible non-recipients have such low income that they cannot contribute anything to the cost of college.

6. Non-tuition costs are high at all three segments of public higher education in California, but very few Cal Grant dollars go to covering non-tuition costs.

Only 15 percent of Cal Grant dollars go towards non-tuition costs, yet students living off campus without family can expect to pay roughly $19,000 per year. State grant aid mostly covers tuition costs at the CSUs and UCs, and individual colleges can also offer more institutional aid to students. As a result, low-income students see the highest total cost of attendance at the community colleges and not the public four-years—despite CCC campuses having the lowest tuition among community colleges nationwide.

Key takeaway: The existing gaps in financial aid mean that mounting student loan debt plagues California students.

7. On average, California student borrowers carried $22,785 in debt.

Among California bachelor’s degree recipients in 2017 who borrowed to pay for college, the average burden after graduation was $22,785. Furthermore,  student debt in California has increased by 119 percent in the last decade, with two-thirds of financially-dependent black and Latinx UC bachelor’s degree recipients graduating with student loan debt, and one-third of California Millennials holding student debt.

8. Despite financial aid efforts, lower-income students take on student loans at much higher rates.

In California, low-income students take on student loans at higher rates than upper-income students: more than half of UC students from families with incomes of $54,000 or below take out loans, whereas 15 percent of students from families earning $161,000 or more do so.

The Road Ahead

With more students going to college now than ever before, California has an obligation to serve its residents well by providing an affordable college education. The analysis in this fact sheet makes clear that the state still has work to do.


  1. There is more than one public postsecondary school system in California. To mitigate confusion between the different systems, acronyms are used when in reference to the different campus systems across California. University of California campuses are abbreviated as UCs; California State University campuses are abbreviated as CSUs; and California Community College campuses are abbreviated as CCCs.
  2. “Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System,” National Center for Education Statistics, the Department of Education, November 14, 2019.
  3. “National Postsecondary Student Aid Study,” National Center for Education Statistics, the Department of Education, November 14, 2019.
  4. The CSU System delivered about $629 million in need-based institutional aid to undergraduates in 2017–18. The UC System delivered about $790 million in need-based institutional aid to undergraduates in 2018–19.