California’s community college system is advancing a bold plan to overhaul how students in the state receive financial aid.
The proposal would be expensive, estimated to cost $1.5 billion a year, but would change the rules of the state’s main form of financial aid — the Cal Grant programs — to allow hundreds of thousands of low- and moderate-income students to receive aid to cover not just tuition but also living expenses like housing and food.
Under current regulations, most Cal Grant money, which is awarded to over 300,000 students, is used to cover tuition. But for many community college students, especially low-income students who are eligible to receive tuition waivers, living expenses comprise by far the largest share of their college costs. In many cases, these living costs can present an insurmountable barrier to attending college.
The concept of providing state aid to cover living expenses is not a new one. But by including it in its budget proposal for the 2019-20 school year, the community college Board of Governors signals to ensure that the issue will be considered.
That the community college system formally included the plan in its budget request is “highly significant,” said Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of The Institute for College Access and Success, a higher-education research and advocacy organization based in Oakland. “I think it shows how much the conversation about college affordability has evolved.”
And despite the price tag, some state lawmakers are signaling support for transforming the Cal Grant, which is already considered one of the most generous state aid programs in the country because of the amounts of money that it offers students.
For more on Cal Grants, see this EdSource guide.
“We know that tuition is only a portion of the cost students face when attending college and I believe we should expand use of Cal Grant to also cover living expenses and transportation to help lighten the burden students face,” said Assemblymember Jose Medina (D-Riverside), who chairs the higher education committee in the state Assembly.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, (D–Sacramento), chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, said he plans to submit a bill with Medina in 2019 to revamp the Cal Grant programs and increase the aid amounts to cover living expenses.
The idea to overhaul the Cal Grant programs, put forward in September by the Board of Governors, the body that oversees the state’s 115 California Community Colleges, stems from frustration advocates have with how the grants work.
Officials at the September meeting pointed out that the Cal Grant programs offer a much smaller amount to community college students than they do to students attending four-year universities. That’s because Cal Grant awards are largely based on the tuition universities charge.
Tuition at the University of California and California State University is $12,570 and $5,742, per year, respectively. The Cal Grants students at those schools receive are in addition to other financial aid.
At community colleges, the most Cal Grant money students can receive is $1,672 per academic year through what’s called an Access award. This is money to cover their living expenses and school supplies. Unlike the case of UC and CSU students, Cal Grant money doesn’t cover the tuition of community college students. About half of community college students receive a tuition waiver of up to $1,380 under a separate state grant.
But the amount of state aid community college students receive doesn’t come close to covering their full costs.
Living expenses “are the costs that students face and really need to have covered in order to be successful,” said Laura N. Metune, vice chancellor for external relations at the California Community Colleges, during the September Board of Governors meeting in Sacramento.
“We fully support the grant access provided to low-income CSU and UC students and are advocating for our students to also have a higher level of access” to Cal Grants, Metune told EdSource. “This is particularly important for our students, as many ultimately transition to our university partners,” she added.
A recent analysis by The Institute for College Access and Success noted that in several regions in California, if living costs and tuition are included, community college students pay more to cover their postsecondary education than do students at UC and CSU campuses.
The analysis looked at areas where all three types of campuses are located. First it identified the total cost of attendance at each of those campuses. Next, it subtracted from that amount the average federal, state and institutional aid undergraduates receive. After considering all the eligible aid, community college students paid as much or more in out-of-pocket college costs than did UC or CSU students, despite having lower tuition bills.
Another issue is that Cal Grant eligibility rules work against community college students. While lawmakers in 2000 changed the Cal Grant so that eligible students are guaranteed financial aid, the eligibility is skewed toward recent high school graduates. Community college students are less likely than CSU and UC students to receive a Cal grant because the vast majority of the awards go to students who finished high school within roughly a year of entering college – and many students entering community college have finished high school more than a year ago.
As a result, just 5 percent of community college students received any Cal Grant money in 2017-18 because so many begin their college education more than a year after finishing high school. By comparison, nearly 40 percent of undergraduate students at UC and about 36 percent at the CSU received a Cal Grant, according to documents.
For students who don’t apply for the guaranteed Cal Grant soon after finishing high school, they can apply for a competitive grant, which is awarded to about 26,000 students a year. In 2017-18, 221,000 students applied and did not receive a grant.
“It is clear that community college students are not as well served as they could be and as we would want them to be,” said Lande Ajose, president of California Competes, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and chair of the California Student Aid Commission that administers the Cal Grant.
Days before the community college Board of Governors voted to formally ask the next governor and Legislature to expand the Cal Grant, the Student Aid Commission voted to increase the amount of Cal Grant money community college students would receive — from $1,672 to $3,000 in 2019-20. That decision requires approval from lawmakers and the governor. The cost of the plan would be $300 million. That’s on top of the roughly $2.2 billion the state already spends on the Cal Grant programs.
Ajose said the commission at its November meeting will decide whether to formally endorse key aspects of the community college system’s plan. These include removing the eligibility rules currently in place that bar many community college students from receiving the Cal Grant because they finished high school more than a year after entering college and changing the Cal Grant to cover the cost of attendance rather than just tuition costs.
“I think a bold proposal is great but we also want to make sure that we’re not being naïve” about cost, Ajose said.
Several recent reports put a price tag on what it would take to overhaul the Cal Grant.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office in a 2017 report estimated the cost at $3.3 billion in additional state dollars. Most of that — $2.2 billion — would go to cover community college students’ costs.
The analysis included cost of attendance, like tuition and housing, minus any grants, loans and work income.
The conclusion was that a community college student could need an additional $3,000 from the state to cover the full cost of attending college for one year.
Another influential report on overhauling the Cal Grant programs is by The Century Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think-tank that the Student Aid Commission hired to come up with a strategy for helping students cover the total cost of attendance. The Foundation estimated the state would need to spend an additional $1.5 billion on just community college students, the amount the Board of Governors cited in its budget proposal. It assumes that community college students could work enough to finance $8,000 toward their total cost of education per year including living expenses.
Alexander Walker-Griffin, a community college student and voting member of the Board of Governors of the state’s community college system, applauds the efforts to raise the Cal Grant to cover living expenses, but questions some of the assumptions the reports make about how much a student can contribute.
“I don’t think that’s realistic at all,” when asked about the likelihood of students contributing $8,000 a year. He said low-income students with families or those in remote areas may not be able to find jobs or put aside that much money to cover college costs.
If an overhaul of the Cal Grant program does move ahead, how much the colleges assume students could contribute from their own incomes may greatly affect the cost of the Cal Grant reforms, said Cochrane. “Every dollar that’s considered reasonable for a student to pay for themselves — either through earnings or loans — is a dollar the state doesn’t have to contribute in the form of grant aid,” she said.