The soul-crush­ing cost of col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia, ex­plained

Times Standard (Eureka) - - EDUCATION - By Feli­cia Mello CalMat­ters

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.

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