The political climate in California often centers around two things: the economy and education. However, the budget currently pending Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature demonstrates that the legislature fails to understand the connection between the two.
The budget misses an opportunity to leverage education funding to improve Californians’ social and economic mobility.
Nationally, the United States finds itself lagging behind most industrialized countries in its citizens’ ability to climb the social ladder, according to the Pew Economic Mobility Project.
In an attempt to ease the burden on those looking to higher education as a means of social mobility, the California state legislature passed the state budget on June 14, which included a scholarship fund aimed at middle-class students.
The fund would operate on a sliding scale and provide tuition relief to those whose family income fell in the “middle class” range, or income from $80,000 to $150,000.
However, as good as the intentions are, if California is serious about restoring the social and economic mobility of its constituents through higher education, it would benefit the state more to increase support for Cal Grants, which spread substantive aid to more than one financial bracket.
In the wake of steep, multiyear cuts to the higher education budget, it makes sense to invest money in what empirically provides the greatest benefit to a larger proportion of the state’s population.
As the middle-class scholarship fund was being debated, two bills were also presented that would have adjusted Cal Grants for inflation and provided increased funding for those installments paid out to the neediest recipients.
Neither bill made it into the final budget.
Once the middle-class scholarship program becomes fully operational in 2018, it will cost the state somewhere around $305 million out of its general fund. If the proposals brought to the floor concerning Cal Grants were all passed, it would cost $289 million.
Moreover, it’s not as if all Cal Grant money would just go to the lowest income students. For the 2013-2014 school year, the income ceiling to apply for a Cal Grant for a family of four was $83,100, high enough to allow middle-income families to apply for the program.
Though the Cal Grant bills were not included in the budget, California’s legislature would have been best served by increasing funding to that program in order to extend it to families on the cusp of being able to afford college, who may not normally be considered low income.
The new scholarship attempts to fix an often-overlooked aid gap that faces middle-class students who may be too wealthy to access significant financial aid in the form of programs like the University of California’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, but not wealthy enough to pay for college without taking on sizable loans.
But the problem of access to higher education is better handled by investing in existing programs like Cal Grants than a sweeping new program like the middle-class scholarship. Moreover, a scholarship that focuses solely on fixing that aid gap is not necessarily the best use of the state’s constrained funds.
In 2010, Jennie Brand, a UCLA sociology professor, set out to test which type of students benefited most from a college education.
Brand found that students who gained the most economic benefits from a college degree were the ones that expansive education programs – such as Cal Grants – targeted.
Additionally, according to a College Board report, low-income students are more likely than middle-class students to be dissuaded from attending college by a high sticker price.
Emanuel Ramirez, a second-year chemistry student, said that his choice to attend UCLA rather than a community college was heavily influenced by the aid package he received, including his Cal Grant.
Financial aid is crucial not only to sustain students like Ramirez through college, but to even convince them to attend in the first place.
If the state wants to seriously tackle long-term growth, it must focus on mobility. And in this case, mobility relies on the ability of financial aid programs to attract and keep bright minds who may not otherwise be able to attend college.