Brown proposes more higher ed funding, but phasing out middle class scholarships

January 10, 2017

Graduation at San Francisco State University.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2017-18 budget proposals for higher education continue his campaign for more efficiency and access at California’s public college and universities, funding ongoing programs to make it easier to transfer from community colleges, improve graduation rates and shorten time to degrees. But Brown triggered some controversy by advocating cuts in aid to middle class students and supporting tuition increases at the University of California and the California State University systems.

If UC and CSU continue efforts to widen access and lower costs, Brown said he would not oppose the first tuition hikes in six years at those two university systems, describing such increases as “probably needed.” He wants to keep community college fees frozen at $46 a credit, among the lowest in the nation, in what his budget document said was “a clear signal that the colleges will remain an accessible pathway to postsecondary education.”

Brown also wants to allocate $150 million from Prop. 98 funds for grants to community colleges to develop what his budget summary calls “guided pathway” programs. The funds could be used for activities such as designing “academic roadmaps and transfer pathways that explicitly detail courses students must take to complete a credential or degree on time.” The goals of the pathway programs would be, among other things, to raise college completion rates, reduce the time it takes to earn a degree and reduce students’ debt loads.

In general, higher education officials had a positive reaction to Brown’s budget plan. Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of California Community Colleges, said in a statement that Brown’s funding proposal was “good news for community college students” and that extra funding would support programs “aimed at improving student outcomes and fulfilling the promise of a quality college credential for more Californians.”

CSU system chancellor Timothy P. White said in a statement that he was “appreciative of the governor’s commitment to investing in public higher education” and pledged to keep working on improving graduation rates. A UC statement thanked the governor for the increases and said his budget would help “maintain access, affordability and quality for our students.”

However, some middle class students at UC and CSU may be the main losers in Brown’s plans unveiled Tuesday. The governor wants to phase out the three-year-old program that provided state-funded financial aid for 46,000 middle class students at California’s public universities this year. Critics said his proposal would hurt the chances of other students to attend the universities or put them more in debt. Some legislative leaders said they would fight to preserve the aid.

Brown proposed that the UC and CSU students who receive the Middle Class Scholarship grants this year can continue to do so through 2020-21, but that no new students would be added. Begun in 2014-15, the grants were aimed at easing the tuition burden of families with annual incomes generally between $80,000 and $150,000. Depending on school and income, those grants could be as much as $3,688 this year for a UC student, according to the California Student Aid Commission, which administers the grants.

In the past, opponents of the middle class aid sought to eliminate the grants, saying they drained money from lower income students. On Tuesday, Michael Cohen, Brown’s director of the Department of Finance, told reporters that the phaseout was a “difficult choice” but, given worries about a possible state deficit, the move was aimed at preserving the larger Cal Grant program for lower income students. During the next four years, the plan would save about $116 million, the budget estimated. About 356,000 students receive the regular Cal Grants, which range from $1,670 a year at community colleges to about $12,200 at UC.

Lupita Cortez Alcalá, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, said she was “deeply disappointed” by the governor’s plan regarding middle class aid. “This is not the time to backpedal from our commitment to California students,” she told EdSource. Without those grants, some students may feel they are “unable to afford attending an institution that they worked really hard to get into,” she said. Some legislative leaders, including Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said they would oppose Brown’s idea as well as any tuition hikes.

California’s public universities should “not just invoke this amorphous term ‘quality’ as the justification for more and more spending,” said Gov. Jerry Brown.

Overall, Brown’s budget called for increases in general fund and property tax revenues of $121 million or 1.3 percent for community colleges; and general fund revenue increases of $185 million or 5.3 percent at CSU, and $83 million or 2.5 percent at UC. (UC also would receive an extra $169 million for its pension costs.) While keeping community college fees frozen, Brown told reporters that the proposed university tuition increases are “probably needed.” Facing strong student protests, UC is considering an increase of $336 or 2.7 percent for tuition and systemwide fees, and CSU may seek as much as $270 or 5 percent more.

Still, Brown insisted at a press conference that he wanted the universities to lower their cost structures and operate more efficiently to serve more students and help them graduate on time. He warned that budgets could be cut in the future, and that UC and CSU must “build reserves and build resiliency in their programs and not just invoke this amorphous term ‘quality’ as the justification for more and more spending.” He said money should be set aside for “guided pathways” that help community college students with counseling and planning to finish their certificates or degrees and transfer more easily.

Education experts said that much could change by the time the final state budget is approved, depending on such varied factors as tax revenues in California and the policies of the incoming Trump administration. “There are a lot of balls up in the air in the coming months,” said Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland-based nonprofit that seeks to keep college affordable and student debt low.

In general, Cochrane praised Brown for his focus on improving graduation and transfer rates. And she said that she agreed with the governor that if money had to be cut, she too would phase out middle class aid to protect other Cal Grants. “It feels like a no-brainer,” she said.

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