This month, the office of California’s governor Gavin Newsom released its proposed 2020–21 budget for the state, as the legislature returned for the second year of its two-year legislative session and ongoing legislative work on college affordability. Governor Newsom plans to continue the state’s years-long trend of modest, yet valuable, increases to investment in its public college and universities. However, to address the critical affordability challenges students still face in the state, research has shown that the state also needs a comprehensive overhaul to—and expansion of—the Cal Grant, its core financial aid program. The governor’s proposed budget does not make any down payment toward those reforms, passing the initiative to the state aid agency’s working group. The group will continue its work in February and will offer recommendations to the legislature this spring, in time for ongoing budget negotiations.
The governor’s proposed budget does not make any down payment toward those reforms, passing the initiative to the state aid agency’s working group. The group will continue its work in February and will offer recommendations to the legislature this spring, in time for ongoing budget negotiations.
Gaps in the current Cal Grant program mean that hundreds of thousands of students and families shoulder an unacceptably large burden of the cost of college. The majority of students who are eligible for the award do not receive it, and even when a student does receive the award, an average of only 15 percent of Cal Grant dollars are able to be used for costs like food and housing after tuition and fees are paid. Due in part to these gaps, student debt in California has more than doubled in the past decade. These statistics and others underscore the need for structural reform to the Cal Grant that will ensure a reasonable net cost of attendance for low-income students.
The campuses of the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) do invest in institutional aid to bring down the overall cost for many students, but those aid efforts are not enough to close the gaps in unmet need, and the California community colleges (CCCs) do not have the resources to provide that aid. The new budget estimates $44 million in new UC student aid, and the budget maintains 2019–20 institutional aid levels for the CSU system; it does not allocate new aid for the CCCs.
The budget does include some new dollars to support college affordability. The proposal continues the state’s commitment to student parents with an increase in funding for the Cal Grant Access award. As The Century Foundation has previously detailed, the majority of students with dependent children have no resources to contribute to college expenses after their family’s living costs, so the Access grant is a crucial program that needs all the investment it can get. In addition, the budget continues efforts to confront community college student hunger and non-tuition expenses through food pantries and no-cost textbooks. These are welcome supports for low-income community college students, whose postsecondary success is also vital to the state economy.
The budget also proposes a formal working group to improve outreach to student loan borrowers, a worthy cause given the volume of loan debt taken on by California students. Ideally, the creation of this group can also open a broader discussion about information disparities across other aspects of financial aid, particularly state and federal grant aid. Research shows that many low-income families do not know how much aid is available to them, and sharing data across state agencies can allow the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) to deliver families personalized estimates of their aid eligibility early in the college-going process.
Last year, college affordability champions in the state’s Assembly and Senate passed AB 1314 and SB 291, respectively, two proposals that would advance the state towards debt-free college by reforming state financial aid. These bills, alongside recommendations forthcoming from the CSAC working group, should be at the forefront of the college affordability discussion statewide in 2020, with an eye toward a down payment the state can make this year. California students cannot wait.