Larry Gordon/EdSource Today
Los Angeles City College, one of the state's 114 community colleges.

California colleges and the state’s financial aid system have done a good job of keeping tuition costs manageable, but other expenses such as housing, food and textbooks are pushing students into debt and hurting their ability to go to college.

That’s the conclusion the Institute for College Access and Success drew from interviews on college affordability with 22 higher education experts across California.

The institute’s report, released Thursday, recommends the state provide greater and more broadly focused financial aid to cover non-tuition costs, and make more aid available to non-traditional students.

The commission estimates average non-tuition costs for students who live off-campus run about $19,000 a year. But, the report noted, “Students who receive Cal Grants for non-tuition costs receive awards of less than $1,700 per year.”

Those high costs could be undermining the state’s college affordability efforts, creating financial barriers for students — particularly those at community colleges and those who are low-income, first-generation, non-traditional or minorities — and driving them to take on debt to pay for their education, the report found.

“Housing, transportation, food — those items are expensive if you live and work full time in California, irrespective of your profession,” Lande Ajose, chair of the California Student Aid Commission, said in the report. “But those costs are especially steep for students with limited earning power and resources.”

The TICAS report comes as the California Student Aid Commission, the state agency that awards Cal Grants, prepares to launch a survey of about 100,000 college students this spring to improve its estimates for non-tuition costs. Many students say the commission currently underestimates the cost of living expenses they pay.

Experts interviewed for the TICAS report — among them higher education researchers, student leaders and administrators from the University of California, California State University and community college systems — lauded the state’s efforts to keep tuition low and a need-based financial aid system they described as one of the most robust in the country.

But for students in expensive regions, such as Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in particular, that aid is not enough to cover the cost of living. And students at community colleges, which despite low tuition costs have high numbers of students struggling to pay for food and housing, are acutely in need of greater help, the report found.

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