The soul-crushing cost of college in California, explained
It’s not your grandparents’—or even your parents’—higher-ed system. A young Californian of the Baby Boomer generation, bolstered by the post-war economic boom and the state’s investment in public higher education, could often emerge from college with little to no debt and a clear path to a living wage and homeownership.
Today’s California students, by contrast, graduate with an average of more than $20,000 in student debt. California offers more generous financial aid than most other states, but gone are the days of taking free college for granted. Studies show many students struggle even to afford food and housing.
How exactly did college costs get so high, and what are policymakers proposing we do about it? Read on.
But beginning in the late 1960s, politicians pushed to increase the amount students contributed to their education. Their stated reasons were both ideological and financial: Ronald Reagan, who as governor prided himself on slashing government spending, said the state should not “subsidize intellectual curiosity.” Later, the dot-com bust in the early aughts prompted tuition increases under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Undergraduate fees at UC grew at nearly five times the rate of inflation between 1977 and 2018; at the height of the most recent recession, the university raised them by 32% in a single year. California State University tuition has grown by about 900% in the last four decades, adjusted for inflation—and that doesn’t include additional fees imposed by individual campuses.
Higher ed spending tanked in the recession
Like other states, California went hunting for line items to cut after the 2008 financial crisis. Higher education went on a diet: Building maintenance was postponed, faculty taught larger classes, and students paid more. The squeeze continued a decline in per-student spending that had been happening since shortly after the turn of the millennium.
Since the recession, California’s higher ed budget has bounced back more than in other states. For example, the state is spending more per student on community colleges than it ever has.
But that doesn’t mean tuition prices have fallen. They’ve just started to level off—while the cost of living continues to rise.
Private colleges have raised prices, too
Nationwide, the average yearly tuition at a private, non-profit college has more than doubled over the last 20 years.
Experts debate what has caused the price hikes at private schools. Some point to high demand—as a college degree became more necessary for economic success—and fancy amenities.
Others argue that growth in federal financial aid actually drives price increases, with colleges pegging their tuition to how much aid is available. That’s more likely to be true at for-profit colleges, which rely heavily on government funding.
Selective non-profit colleges can draw on their endowments to subsidize scholarships, so many students don’t pay the sticker price. Low-income applicants often aren’t aware that this type of aid is available to them at private schools, a phenomenon known as undermatching.
In recent years, as financial strains have led to closures among small liberalarts colleges, some have tried to stand out by cutting their prices—including Mills College in Oakland, which slashed tuition from $44,765 to $28,765 in 2017, saying it wanted to be more accessible.
‘Non-traditional’ students the new normal
Today’s college students are more ethnically diverse, more likely to come from low-income households and more likely to be the first in their families to attend college than those of 20 years ago. More than one-third are over the age of 25.
That’s great news for building a diverse future leadership of California— but it presents challenges for the state’s financial aid planners. Assumptions that policymakers made in the past—for example, that students can rely on their parents for help with books and transportation—no longer hold up.
A wave of student surveys in the last few years has found widespread food insecurity and homelessness at California’s public colleges.
There’s some dispute among researchers about the accuracy of estimates produced by surveys like this. Nevertheless, it’s clear that hunger and homelessness are a significant problem on California campuses, part of a national trend that’s probably exacerbated by the state’s high housing costs.
Student debt is growing
Californians hold about a tenth of the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, and the total has doubled in the last decade.
Students who don’t want to take on debt, or have already maxed out on loans, often increase working hours to fill the gap between their financial aid and the total cost of attendance.
Working while in school can actually boost academic performance, studies have found, as long as it’s fewer than 15 hours per week.
But low-income students who work more than that have lower grade point averages and are less likely to graduate in six years than their peers who work fewer hours, according to a report by the ACT Center for Equity in Learning.
That’s important because graduation rates at California State University and community colleges, which serve the bulk of the state’s students, are already less than stellar (though at CSU, they’re on the rise).
With some projections showing California’s economy faces a shortfall of a million college graduates by 2030, more policymakers are arguing the state needs to do something to address the cost of attendance. Agreeing on what to do has been more challenging.
California has generous financial aid
Worried about the cost of college? You’re not alone. Voters in a 2019 PACE/USC Rossier poll ranked college affordability as the secondmost important education issue for California, behind gun violence in schools. More than half of California adults think community college should be tuition-free.
When it comes to financial aid, California’s already a bigger spender than any other state, doling out $2 billion in grants and scholarships in 2018. The Cal Grant, the state’s major scholarship program, pays up to the full cost of tuition at the University of California and California State University, and just over $9,000 per year at private California colleges, for the neediest students. It’s a “first dollar” scholarship, which means that students can combine it with federal and other grants to save as much as possible.
Community college students whose families earn 150% or less of the federal poverty level can have their fees waived.
But demand outpaces supply
Only students who have recently graduated from high school are entitled to a Cal Grant. Low- to middle-income students must earn at least a 3.0 GPA, while very low-income students can qualify with a 2.0. (Students transferring from a community college to a four-year school have their own, separate, requirements.)
Students who have the right GPA, but have been out of school for more than two years, must apply for what are known as “competitive” Cal Grants. And that’s where things get dicey—because the state only funds a certain number each year.
Some Cal Grants come with a stipend for books and living expenses, but at $1,672, it’s just higher than the average per-year textbook cost, leaving little left over for food and rent.
Pantries and parking lots: meeting basic needs
Over the past three years, student activism and a growing body of research have drawn attention to the challenges college students face in meeting basic needs: food, shelter, transportation and mental health.
While colleges have added food pantries and emergency housing beds, lawmakers continue to debate solutions. Proposals range from the ambitious and pricey—overhauling the Cal Grant program to cover the total cost of attendance—to the more modest, like letting homeless students park overnight in community college lots.