Free tuition, absolutely, but California can and must do more to provide more equitable financial aid system Chancellor's Column

December 18, 2018
Chancellor Eloy Oakley

The Master Plan for Higher Education commits California to providing a place in one of the state’s public institutions of higher learning to all those who could benefit—relying on the 115 California community colleges to serve the top 100 percent of students.

Yet current state policy allows troubling inequities:  On a per-student basis, the state funds community colleges at a rate far lower than other segments of public education, and existing financial aid policy makes relatively few resources available to students to support the total cost of community college attendance.

Just 9 percent of the 2.1 million California community college students received a Cal Grant in 2017-18, compared to nearly 40 percent of undergraduate students at the University of California and approximately 36 percent of students at the California State University system.

Recent legislation to provide free tuition to first-time, full-time students for the first year, and efforts currently under way to expand it to two years is indeed welcomed and should be applauded.

But to ensure a meaningful commitment to higher education access and success, California must make a greater investment in California community college students by providing greater need-based Cal Grant support and establishing a reasonable price students pay toward their own education.

Tuition at California community colleges is the lowest in the nation, and already half of all students have these costs waived based on need. But just because tuition is free doesn’t mean that college is affordable. Expenses in a high-cost state like ours quickly escalate: housing, transportation, books and the like.

The California Community Colleges Board of Governors has approved a proposal for the 2019-20 budget to expand student financial aid based on three principles:

  • Link Cal Grant awards to the total cost of attendance, rather than tuition.
  • Entitle students to Cal Grant awards based on their financial need, rather than how old they are, how recently they graduated from high school, or what their grade point average was.
  • Extend the Cal Grant program to all certificate and degree programs offered at community colleges, regardless of whether the programs are oriented toward those transferring to four-year colleges or universities.

Nothing in our proposal would take Cal Grant resources away from California State University and University of California students, who certainly deserve the support they receive.

California is big enough, however, and farsighted enough to invest additional resources into a financial aid structure that helps more community college students cover the cost of attending college.

We are pleased that the California Student Aid Commission has agreed in principle to several of the tenants of our proposal, and we look forward to working with Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, the incoming Legislature and other partners to crafting a solution that creates more equity and opportunity.