Student Debt Relief Will Come at a Cost for California

The California debate over free college may have grown closer to its final resolution, thanks to a bill proposed by lawmakers in March of this year. The scholarship proposal, titled “Degrees Not Debt”, could bring relief to 390,000 public university students with an income of $150,000 or less, according to the California assembly’s March budget meeting. However, the bill’s price tag and source of funding have many reeling.

According to the California Committee on Education Finance, the average full cost to attend a CSU is $20,600, and for a UC the number is closer to $32,800. Degrees Not Debt promises to pay attention to the entire cost of college, not just tuition and fees, which goes beyond what other programs offer. It also addresses the federal expected family contribution, which, especially for a state like California with high housing prices, is unreasonable. Rather than enforcing the expected contribution, the Degrees Not Debt program would ask families to contribute one-third of the amount.

This kind of aid would have been more than welcome for mothers like Janet Raven and Marit Skelton, whose children recently finished graduate school. Skelton’s daughter attended Pepperdine University in California, and she “wouldn’t have been able to go without a scholarship,” Skelton said. As a single parent, Skelton was struggling with how to finance her daughter’s education, and her daughter ended up needing multiple grants and a scholarship to attend university. At Pepperdine, the total cost of attendance is $66,152 without financial aid.

Raven agreed that some financial aid is needed for all college students. Her son, who recently graduated without a scholarship, has student loans. “We’ll be paying until we die,” Raven said. She advised families to stay away from student loans as much as they possibly can, unless they want to be “in debt forever.” Skelton echoed this sentiment, urging students to be “creative” in the ways that they approach financial aid. Both women agreed that something new needed to happen in order for the student loan process to become easier on families.

Although neither Skelton’s children nor Raven’s attended community college, community students are also aided by the Degrees Not Debt program. However, the Community College League of California writes in their May government relations update that they have “concern” about the policy.

The proposed funding to assist in tuition costs for community college comes from the 1988 bill Proposition 98, which requires a minimum of 40% of the state budget to go to K-14 education. (Currently, over 50% of the general fund is allocated to education.) In order to fund the tuition relief, Degrees Not Debt would be siphoning budget from Prop 98, and thus from education for pre-college students.

This sets a lot of teeth on edge. “It is bad policy,” writes Rocky Chavez of the San Diego Tribune. “You need success in the former to even reach the latter.” The Community College League agrees, admitting that there will be “significant tradeoffs” if the bill is passed. Additionally, increased Cal Grants still will not be enough to assist low-income students. The Institute for College Access and Success reports that although most students in California attend community colleges, only 7% of Cal Grant dollars actually go to community college students. And the 90% of eligible applicants who did not receive Cal Grants? More than 140,000 of those people lived below the poverty line, and over 28,000 were single parents. The Institute argues that the grants just aren’t doing enough to finance students’ education – and an increase in the number of them won’t be enough.Courtesy of the Institute for College Access and Success

The price of the Degrees Not Debt program is also controversial. The bill would cost around $1.6 billion, a number assemblyman Kevin McCarty asserts can be achieved without tax increases. For a program that some say does not accurately address student needs, it doesn’t seem worth it. Debbie Cochrane, of the Institute for College Access and Success, writes that the program attempts unsuccessfully to account for lower-income students, while still giving higher-income students disproportionate opportunities.

Still, controversial or not, the Degrees Not Debt scholarship program is a new way to view the issue of college financial aid. Currently, it is on track to be phased in through the 2018-19 school year, and, for parents and students, it could be a saving grace.