Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal puts forth some substantial increases in aid for the higher education system in California. Perhaps the most notable suggested change is a proposed $122 million for increased Cal Grant aid to cover non-tuition expenses of low-income students with dependent children attending the 114 California Community Colleges (CCC), the twenty-three California State University (CSU) campuses, and the nine-campus University of California (UC) system.

Last spring, The Century Foundation released a report recommending significant reforms to the Cal Grant system, including the removal of GPA and age restrictions, as well as suggesting the restructuring of state financial aid allocations—including Cal Grants and institutional aid—to cover tuition and non-tuition costs. While the governor’s budget proposal stops short of a larger, necessary overhaul of the system, it takes steps toward closing the existing affordability gaps identified by that report by 1) providing non-tuition help to student parents, a group likely to not just have high financial need, but to have effectively no resources available to pay for college costs, and 2) directing most of the funding to students with financial need that attend campuses with few institutional aid dollars to help cover non-tuition costs.

Sending Resources Where They’re Needed

Student parents make up about 20 percent of Californians enrolled in college in the state and have some of the highest financial need amongst already eligible Cal Grant recipients. Furthermore, our analysis of available data finds that college students with dependent children in California are much more likely to have significant financial need than students without dependent children; and just over 70 percent of student parents in California earn less than $30,000 a year. More than half of them (62 percent) have no disposable income to contribute to their education (zero expected family contribution, or EFC), a far greater proportion than students without dependent children.

Table 1
Percent of California Students in Each Expected Family Contribution Category, by Student Parent Status
Expected Family Contribution Category Has Dependent Children No Dependent Children
$0 61.5% 38.3%
$1,000–2,799 16.6% 19.6%
$2,800–7,999 10.5% 15.5%
$8,000–19,299 6.9% 14.8%
$19,300 or more 4.6% 11.8%
Source: 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.
Table 2

Annual Income for California Public College Students with Dependent Children, 2015–16

Annual Income Category Percent of Public College Students with Dependent Children
$0 (no income) 18.4%
Under $10,000 17.4%
$10,000–$19,999 19.4%
$20,000–$29,999 15.5%
$30,000–$49,999 14.3%
$50,000 or more 15.0%
Source: 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

In California, these students are disproportionately enrolled at California’s community colleges. According to data from the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC), of the approximately 29,000 Cal Grant awards that went to students with dependent children at public institutions in 2017–18, 75 percent went to students enrolled at a community college, 23 percent at a CSU, and 3 percent at a UC. This is an important point: under the governor’s proposed budget, these dollars would go to students not just with very low EFCs, but also primarily to students attending community colleges, where there is almost no institution-provided aid to help them with non-tuition costs.

Broader Reforms Are Still Critical

Students with dependent children face a variety of challenges to college enrollment and completion, and the budget proposal’s attention to this population brings California in line with a growing national focus on investing in students parents. The proposed increase in Cal Grant access awards—which can be used to cover non-tuition expenses like books, rent, and child care—would help California student parents afford to enroll and persist at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Of the approximately 537,000 student parents attending public colleges in California, more than three in five do not have financial resources to put toward their educational costs.

But the challenges facing student parents in California are also a good reminder of the need for broader reforms. Of the approximately 537,000 student parents attending public colleges in California, more than three in five do not have financial resources to put toward their educational costs (i.e., their EFC is $0)—but just 29,000 of them received Cal Grants in 2017–18. Another 897,000 students without dependent children fall into the same category of need. Given that hundreds of thousands of low-income students are attending public institutions in California and are not currently receiving Cal Grants, Governor Newsom’s proposed increase in aid for student parents is an important first step moving California’s student aid system toward more comprehensive coverage of total educational costs for students.