Faced with the state’s high cost of living, California college students struggle to secure adequate food and housing. Even amid one of the largest and longest economic expansions in state history, 33% of students are housing insecure and 35% have low or very low food security, according to a California Student Aid Commission survey of 150,000 college students. As the state seeks to meet economic demand by producing more students with degrees and certificates, the full cost of college remains a barrier to progress.
Governor Newsom and the legislature have recognized the need to reform state financial aid programs to address the full cost of college. The 2019–20 state budget provided $41 million in ongoing funding to help colleges address food and housing insecurity, $19 million to support rapid rehousing programs, and increased the number of competitive state grants for non-traditional students from 25,750 to 41,000. Additionally, the legislature increased the maximum award amount that students with children pay for non-tuition college costs from $1,672 to about $6,000.
However, broader reform of the state grant aid program remains elusive. Two recent bills sought to expand eligibility for Cal Grants by eliminating current age, time out of high school, and high school GPA requirements. The bills also sought to provide additional non-tuition aid to community college students and students in career education programs. The bills did not make it to a vote; however, they will be re-examined in the next legislative session. Estimated at $2 billion per year, proposed reforms would nearly double the annual cost of the program.
Consequently, the California Student Aid Commission, the agency that distributes financial aid, intends to streamline these proposals to constrain costs while increasing access. Higher education is a vital tool that increases economic and social mobility; ensuring all students have equal access to an affordable education is paramount to modernizing California’s economy. An equitable and financially viable approach to financial aid will be critical if the state’s booming economy slows in coming years.