Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom released his first budget proposal, offering substantial funding increases for many critical purposes and populations across California public higher education and taking steps to close affordability gaps for tens of thousands of students.

The budget proposal makes a pledge of tuition-free community college through students’ second year, allocating about $80 million across the full program and sending an important message about college access to all Californians. The proposed budget also strengthens the Cal Grant—the state’s primary college scholarship program—through a $122 million expansion of Cal Grant Access Awards, designated specifically for students with dependent children, and allocates funding for on-campus childcare at California State University (CSU) schools. Low-income students will benefit from $30 million for food and housing support at University of California (UC) schools and CSU schools, another step that recognizes that college affordability is about more than reducing tuition. And the proposal also adds an additional 4,000 funded grants for students who do not meet the eligibility requirements for a guaranteed Cal Grant.

Supercharging the Cal Grant

Expanding the Cal Grant is a worthy cause: While California already does more than most states to provide need-based financial aid, there are still significant gaps in the program’s complex system. Last spring, The Century Foundation released recommendations for reforming California’s financial aid programs, proposing that state policymakers close affordability gaps for students who do not qualify for state aid, expand the Cal Grant program to cover non-tuition costs, and simplify the aid system so that people can understand what’s available for them early enough in the process that students who otherwise might not have enrolled in college would now choose to do so.

Expanding the Cal Grant is a worthy cause: While California already does more than most states to provide need-based financial aid, there are still significant gaps in the program’s complex system.

Under existing law, the Cal Grant primarily focuses on covering tuition at UCs and CSUs, but it limits its guarantee of access for low-income students to recent high school graduates and students with relatively high GPAs in high school. These grants are classified as “Entitlement” grants. Those who do not qualify for Entitlement grants may then attempt to qualify for very limited “Competitive” Cal Grant slots. Campuses then try to fill in gaps left by the underfunded Competitive grant, as well as for covering non-tuition costs, by offering institutional aid. However, the aid that CSUs and community colleges in particular can offer is limited: in most cases CSUs are unable to fill those gaps, and while many students receive a tuition waiver at community colleges, those institutions rarely have any institutional aid to offer at all to cover non-tuition costs.

After a comprehensive review, TCF recommended removing GPA and restrictions on time out of school, which have significantly limited the number of students—especially non-traditional students—who can qualify for a Cal Grant. We also proposed basing aid awards on both tuition and non-tuition costs, such as housing, books, and transportation. The governor’s proposed Cal Grant Access Award expansion helps needy students with additional non-tuition costs by covering up to $6,000 for the 28,000 student parents who are low-income and already qualify for the Cal Grant award. The investment would begin to close the gap in unmet need, and as Governor Newsom stated in his press conference introducing the proposal, it is “the right thing to do.” But there is still more work to do to expand non-tuition grant aid to more underserved students and to non-traditional students currently locked out of the guaranteed entitlement program.

The financial aid system is also logistically complex. Part of TCF’s recommendations focused on not just restructuring the system to make it simpler and easier to navigate, but also using evidence-driven approaches to ensuring low- and moderate-income students receive a clear message that aid is available and that college is for them. For example, the state income tax agency could partner with the higher education system to send personalized information to families with children who may qualify for financial aid in the future. The governor’s budget proposes investing upwards of $10 million in various new student outreach initiatives, and efforts could also incorporate or build on TCF’s recommended approach to outreach earlier in the process.

Moving Forward on the Expansions

The state legislature (and other stakeholders) have signaled interest in building on the governor’s proposal and pursuing a broad overhaul. The California Student Aid Commission, the agency responsible for administering the Cal Grant, voted in November to align their strategy and remove the existing barriers described above, and to focus on cost of attendance. And State Assembly Member Jose Medina, chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, called for even broader changes to financial aid last week and committed to advocating for “complete Cal Grant reform.”

With interest coming from the governor’s office, the relevant agencies, and the legislature, 2019 may be a big year for serious college affordability efforts in the state that serves more students than any other in the nation.

Editor’s note: on January 25, 2019, the amount of the Cal Grant Access Awards expansion was corrected.