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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Contact: Daphne Borromeo
Voice: 408-792-3153
E-mail: dborromeo@highereducation.org


Community College Unaffordable for Many California Students

San Jose, CA— Despite the low fees of the California Community College System, many of the state's students still cannot afford to attend community college, according to a new report released today.

"For too long, California has assumed that keeping community college fees low will in itself provide students access to its two-year schools," said William Zumeta, senior author of the report co-authored with Deborah Frankle. "The truth is California is an expensive place to live and go to school."

Community college fees represent less than five percent of total attendance costs for the typical community college student, according to the report. However, non-fee costs—such as books, housing, and health care—have grown much more rapidly than the state's general cost of living in recent years.

For example, say Zumeta and Frankle, rental housing costs, which make up the largest share of student budgets, grew 25% over the last five years in California, compared with an overall inflation rate of 16% in the state. "Affordability is a serious problem for many community college students, and fees are not the main cause," Zumeta and Frankle stated. "More adequate financial aid is the only effective way to deal with the non-fee costs that are the primary cause of affordability problems for California community college students, more of whom have very low incomes than is generally true in other states."

The report, released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, was commissioned to better understand issues and trends in affordability of California's community colleges and the students who seek to attend them. Among the study's key findings:

  • Cal Grants, the state's largest student financial aid program, is not keeping pace with students' financial needs, and has fallen far behind the overall growth of attendance costs. Using the California Consumer Price Index to estimate the purchasing power today of the original access grants (the part of Cal Grant B designated for non-tuition costs), the maximum award would today be worth $5,190 instead of the current $1,551. The maximum award has increased just 15% in the last 20 years.

  • California and its students are missing out on substantial funding from federal financial aid sources. Only 15.5% of California community college students who were enrolled in 2003-04 received federal Pell Grants, compared to 25.4% of community college students in other states.

  • Efforts to increase student use of federal financial aid have seen modest improvements since a substantial infusion of state funds into financial aid administrative capacity was made in 2003-04. The Chancellor's Office reported a gain of about 20,000 in the number of students receiving Pell Grants between 2002-03 and 2004-05. This represents a gain from 8.9% to 10.6% among students enrolled for credit, suggesting that there is a large potential for additional growth.

  • Because federal Pell Grant rules discourage very low tuition, the latest community college fee reduction by the California Legislature will likely result in some $20 million annually in reduced Pell Grant support for some of the state's lowest-income students.

  • Fees in the California Community Colleges were the lowest in the nation and fees were about one-third of the national average before the Legislature's recent fee rollback.

"In today's global economy, California's community colleges are a crucial resource for the state's economic competitiveness," said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center. "As the primary access point to higher education for most low-income students and students from California's rapidly growing populations of color, the community colleges must remain accessible and be provided with the incentives and resources to ensure higher rates of student success.

"This report is important because it challenges California's historic approach to community college access—an approach that has relied almost exclusively on low fees and geographic proximity. These approaches alone are not producing the needed results for students or the state," added Callan.

The report's authors recommend that the state continue to invest in policies and practices that are shown to be successful at increasing community college students' receipt of federal financial aid. Second, the state should address the affordability problem directly by substantially enhancing the access grant portion of Cal Grant B and increasing Cal Grant Competitive Awards at least in tandem with indicators of demand for them. Finally, the state and California Community College System should implement modest annual fee increases—tied to growth in personal income in the state—that the colleges would keep, matched by increases in state appropriations. The increased fee revenues should be directed toward improving student persistence, completion, and transfer while the state matching funds should be invested in need-based financial aid.

William Zumeta is a Senior Fellow at the National Center and Professor of Public Affairs and Higher Education at the University of Washington. Deborah Frankle is a former Policy Analyst at the National Center.

California Community Colleges: Making Them Stronger and More Affordable presents the complete findings and policy implications of six months of research and analysis. The study was funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The report will be released on Wednesday, March 7, 2007. Upon its release, the report will be available on the National Center's Web site (www.highereducation.org).

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education promotes public policies that enhance Americans' opportunities to pursue and achieve a quality higher education. Established in 1998, the National Center is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. It is not associated with any institution of higher education, with any political party, or with any government agency.

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