A Counterproductive Promise

Yuiko Sugino/Guardian

HIGHER EDUCATION — Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stated he will refuse to sign the fiscal year 2010-11 budget until funds are restored to the University of California, the California State University and state community-college systems. Although late in the game, it’s a noble gesture from our soon-to-be-retired state leader that shouldn’t go unpraised.

But even if the Governator manages to intimidate a couple state representatives into backing higher education, it won’t mean as much if thousands of students are still unable to afford a college education. Though the governor’s proposed budget would restore $848 million to higher public education — a 12-percent increase from last year’s $746 million — it comes hand-in-hand with one glaring problem: Competitive Cal Grants will be cut entirely for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Every year, 22,500 Competitive Cal Grants are granted — primarily to cover undergraduate tuition and expenses for low-income community college students. After barely surviving last year’s budget cuts, the $35 million program now faces elimination altogether.

Three days before the March 4 Day of Action protests, Gov. Schwarzenegger promised to preserve the Competitive Cal Grant if the state saw an increase in tax revenue. Come Tax Day, the state collected a 3.9 percent increase in tax receipts — enough to fund the competitive grant, though apparently still not quite enough to have Schwarzenegger make good on his word.

By suspending the Competitive Cal Grant, Schwarzenegger is eliminating a primary source of scholarship funding for over 20,000 students. Reducing scholarships is obviously never a good thing — especially in financially challenging times. But even worse, eliminating the Competitive Cal Grant disproportionately affects community-college students by reducing the number of recipients by 45 percent, as opposed to 16 percent within the UC system.

Attending community college costs approximately $4,500 each year — a much more accessible alternative to a CSU or UC campus. Community colleges provide an invaluable local gateway to higher education — one that, unprotected by the governor’s Tax Day promise, will now be further jeopardized.

According to the governor’s plan, restoring funding to higher-education institutions will require the Cal Grant program be frozen in its current state. In the past, Competitive Cal Grant payments have increased alongside fee increases. From the 2009-10 academic year to the 2010-11 academic year, the 32-percent increase in student fees leaves a $3,000 gap that students will have to cover without the help of Cal Grants.

While Gov. Schwarzenegger may have promised no more future cuts to the other parts of the Cal Grant system last week, maintaining a fixed rate of aid in full knowledge that tuition will rise each year is essentially undoing the promise.

We understand that California’s budget isn’t an endless well of funds, but guaranteeing money to top public institutions while cutting from the Cal Grant system will discourage upward mobility — disproportionately affecting those populations who need the opportunity most. In this way, California will be taking a more privatized and lopsided approach to education.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, by 2025, California will have one million fewer college-educated residents than the economy requires.

To preserve equal access to higher education, California needs a more sustainable plan. Like it or not, voters need to start investing in higher education through their taxes. We need to reconsider Proposition 13, which freezes property taxes at 1 percent — and which, as a result, has diminished state funding for higher education. After the measure passed in 1973, tuition and student fees have steadily risen. It’s clearly not possible to keep property-tax revenues at a static 1 percent and simultaneously preserve quality, accessible higher education in a failing economy.

Another way to close the gaping hole left by the Governor’s proposal could be to join state grants with non-profit scholarships. Instead of remaining isolated in the depths of the Internet, non-profit organizations’ scholarships could be made available alongside state grants, garnering publicity while simultaneously ensuring low-income students aren’t left out in the rain without an umbrella.

While the governor’s refusal to sign the budget until more funds have been allocated to California’s public higher-education system is admirable, preserving a stable middle class and competitive working force is going to take a lot more than optimistic rhetoric and a stingy signature for the dotted line.

Readers can contact Cheryl Hori at [email protected]