Influencers Opinion

What one thing could make college more affordable? It’s not just lowering tuition

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The Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, Modesto Bee, San Luis Obispo Tribune and Merced Sun-Star will focus on the policy challenges that most affect our community and our future.

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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California Influencers this week answered the question: What’s the one thing you would do first in an effort to make college more affordable? Below are the Influencers’ answers in their entirety.

“Three things must work together ... to make college more affordable for students and their families”

Timothy White - California State University Chancellor

Three things must work together – not just one – to make college more affordable for students and their families.

First, strong investment by the state in its annual appropriation process is vital to keep tuition from rising. The CSU is grateful that the legislature and governor have invested boldly again this year – indeed, tuition has needed to be increased only once in the past eight years.

Second, robust financial aid is essential. That is why we advocated successfully to have federal Pell Grants become available in summer. It is also why we support state policy initiatives that will expand the Cal Grant program – allowing more students to qualify and making aid available during the summer session.

Third, minimizing costs to students – for example, by providing low-cost and no-cost course materials, and decreasing time to earn a high-quality degree – is key. The CSU is committed to removing barriers that can prevent students from graduating in a timely manner. We know that graduating just one term earlier provides our students with an immediate savings of more than $13,000, so we are doing everything we can to allow them to earn their degrees on their desired timeline.

More equitable financial aid key to college affordability

Eloy Oakley - California Community Colleges Chancellor

Getting college affordability right is a challenge California must address to improve social and economic mobility for all who live here. The biggest barriers to enrolling in college is cost and the need to work full-time, research by the California Community Colleges shows. How can that be, many may ask, given that our fees are the lowest in the nation and half our students pay no tuition through the California College Promise. The reality is that living expenses are the biggest costs for community college students, and our state’s financial aid system largely overlooks this reality, with less than 10 percent of Cal Grant funds going to community college students. This year’s state budget takes an important first step in expanding the number of Cal Grants, but more structural changes, paired with additional investment, are needed. We must also lower the cost of education. Currently, most students take far more courses than are required to earn a certificate, degree or transfer to a four-year institution, straining the resources of both students and the state. Community colleges are working to provide students with a more direct path to their educational goals, including working with our four-year higher education partners to streamline and guarantee transfer.

“Ensuring college affordability requires multiple solutions”

Janet Napolitano - University of California President

I would focus on colleges partnering with public and private sectors to address the total cost of attendance, not just tuition. Universities can continue to explore innovative ways to increase student success and shorten time to degree-attainment; the State can keep expanding its recent increased investments in higher education; and changes in federal law could reduce interest rates on student loans. Furthermore, we should encourage public-private partnerships to explore shared aims: Businesses and organizations could enhance – with resources and established career pathways – support for the colleges that supply them with needed talent. Ensuring college affordability requires multiple solutions, and we therefore need to tackle this issue on various fronts.

Opportunity for lowest-Income students requires overhauling our system of higher education finance

Monica Lozano - President and CEO of the College Futures Foundation

Attending college includes many bills beyond tuition: housing, transportation, food, and books. But there is a larger price that students, families, and the state of California are paying: the cost of broken promises.

Every year, our public universities turn away tens of thousands of qualified students and cannot ensure adequate resources for those enrolled. In good economic times, we see increases in state appropriations and tuition freezes. In bad times, budgets are balanced by increasing tuition while slashing resources and services.

Our state’s leaders must create a new system that stabilizes and strengthens higher education funding and long-term planning. Adopting multi-year budgets and tying tuition to the cost of living index would keep increases moderate and predictable and allow for better decision-making about resource allocation. The state also could explore funding a budget reserve to expand access for students and encourage innovation in cost reductions, time to degree, and student success measures.

We expect families to set budgets, save money, and plan for the future. Yet California doesn’t have a realistic, long-term finance plan for higher education, and our lowest-income families bear the consequences. Ensuring success for students facing the most formidable barriers will help all of us thrive.

“To make college more affordable is to reform our financial aid programs to address the total cost of attendance”

Connie Leyva - California State Senator (D-Chino)

The first thing I would do to make college more affordable is to reform our financial aid programs to address the total cost of attendance. Financial aid, such as the Cal Grant program or the California College Promise Grant at California Community Colleges, currently only covers enrollment fees. However, tuition and fees only account for a portion of college costs. According to the California Student Aid Commission, “non-tuition” costs exceed $18,000 annually for California Community College students living independently. In addition, research by The Institute for College Access and Success reveals a student’s ability to pay the full cost of attendance is an important factor in his or her success. A student who cannot afford to fully cover access costs such as textbooks, transportation, food and housing may make choices that undermine their ability to complete their education. For example, they may need to work more hours at the expense of studying.

As the author of SB 291 which will ensure that our community colleges remain affordable by creating a financial aid program to help cover a student’s whole cost of attendance, I am fully committed to making college attendance across community colleges, CSU’s and UC’s more affordable.

“We need to focus on real reforms to lower the cost of education”

Ling Ling Chang - California State Senator (R-Diamond Bar)

Rising education costs are making higher education unaffordable for many students. We need to focus on real reforms to lower the cost of education; we can’t subsidize our way out of this problem.

We can begin by finding ways to reduce the overhead at universities. There’s plenty of administrative bloat in higher education and as a result the cost of attending college has grown in price way past the rate of inflation. At many colleges and universities, administration has grown much faster than student enrollment.

We also need to alleviate California’s youth homelessness crisis and housing shortage. Students are struggling with skyrocketing housing costs and food insecurity; one in five Los Angeles community college students is homeless. I support efforts to give community colleges the ability to grant overnight access to parking facilities during the night to students in good standing.

Eliminate tuition and fees and direct financial aid where it’s needed most

Ted Lempert - President of Children Now

In 1960, when California enacted the Master Plan for Higher Education we became the envy of the world for our public colleges and universities. The brilliance of that plan was enshrining the principle of universal access and choice in public higher education and its cornerstone was the reaffirmation of California’s commitment to a tuition free education to the residents of the state. Unfortunately, when budgets got tight we lost sight of that commitment and shifted the burden to students by imposing and then steadily increasing tuition and fees. In 2017, the average college graduate in our state had nearly $23,000 of debt. The California Legislature just approved a $214.8 billion state budget. It would take just 5% of that budget to completely eliminate tuition and fees at the UC, CSU and community colleges. Need-based financial aid could then be directed to non-tuition costs, such as housing, food, and transportation, which are typically unaccounted for in most state and federal student financial aid programs. Given our state’s ever growing need for a highly skilled workforce and educated populace, this would be a small price to pay to ensure that all Californians can access our world-class public institutions of higher education.

Update higher ed for the decentralized technology age

Christine Robertson - Executive Director of the San Luis Coastal Education Foundation

Colleges must embrace a bricks-and-clicks model to drive down cost while improving outcomes. By reimagining our educational models to include technology enabled flexible learning environments, we increase access and decrease cost.

Simply put, the centralized brick-and-mortar model is expensive and inequitable. ‘Going away to college’ means the average student will spend more than half of their $25,290 yearly budget on room, board and transportation costs. Even if, as is being discussed, governments could wrangle up the $70 billion plus per year to eliminate tuition costs, such a move would do nothing to curb rising budgets or reduce the cost-of-living expenses that put college out of reach for many low-income students.

Rather than resisting disruptive change, colleges should be on the vanguard of innovation. If institutions of higher education are to effectively prepare the thinkers of the future, they must themselves be oriented toward the techniques and technologies of the future. For example, augmenting campus-base instruction with virtual classrooms can expand access and reduce cost. Pairing traditional instruction with personalized and self-paced learning platforms can enhance student choice and accelerate learning.

By updating our models of instruction for the decentralized technology age, we can more equitably expand the reach and impact of these learning opportunities.

“Creating new opportunities for students and reducing the time it takes to receive a degree would be a major step”

Vernon Billy -CEO and Executive Director of the California School Boards Association

We should make the first two years of college tuition-free – regardless of whether you attend a community college, a UC, or a CSU. There’s no reason that students or their families should be paying for what amounts to – in most cases – general education. Plus, eliminating tuition for the first two years builds on work that the state, local school districts, community colleges and universities have been partnering on as they address the issue of college affordability.

In order to reap the full benefit of this idea, we should fully fund public education so there’s less need for remediation at the collegiate level. At the same time, we should expand K-12/college partnerships so more high school students can pursue dual enrollment options and earn college credit. Creating new opportunities for students and reducing the time it takes to receive a degree would be a major step toward making college more affordable.

We can shorten the path to a degree and reduce the expense for working families – the question is do we have the political will to do so?

“The high cost of college is one factor contributing to the teacher shortage in California”

Linda Darling-Hammond - California State Board of Education President for the Newsom Administration

The high cost of college is one factor contributing to the teacher shortage in California. Governor Newsom acknowledged this issue by setting aside $89.8 million in the budget for the Golden State Teacher Grant program. Under the program, students in teacher credentialing programs can receive a $20,000 grant if they commit to working in a high-need field (special education, STEM, bilingual education) at a high-need school for four years. This won’t solve the shortage completely – more needs to be done to help struggling schools and districts attract and retain teachers. But by recognizing that college debt load is a barrier to entering public service, Governor Newsom made an important first step.

“College affordability is more than the cost of tuition”

Rosalind Hudnell - Former President of the Intel Foundation

College affordability is more than the cost of tuition which is why it will take more than one answer to how to make it more affordable. Students who find ways to get their tuition funded often go into debt taking out loans to pay for living expenses. Those who then also work to pay for living expenses often struggle balancing that job with a full time course load making it near impossible to stay in the more challenging degree fields like engineering and computer science where the greatest gaps remain. Study after study, whitepaper after whitepaper, and now even politicians have written about their ideas. Many of them are good but until we as a society actually align on what we are willing to sacrifice to make college more affordable, the debate will continue. The harsh truth is that college is affordable - to those with enough money to pay for it and until that isn’t a reality that the majority of our electorate can accept, there is little hope for revolutionary change. Until then, tweaks such as student loan forgiveness, adjustments to the tax code, continual oversight over the student loan industry would be a good start.

“College affordability remains a critical barrier to the life-changing opportunities”

Myrna Castrejon - President and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association

California’s charter public schools have one mission: to help our most vulnerable students prepare for college and successfully complete their degrees. However, college affordability remains a critical barrier to the life-changing opportunities and support that these public schools provide.

At a moment when we have historically high numbers of underserved students filling the hallways of California’s colleges, it is downright immoral that we are saddling them with unsustainable student debt.

This is not the path to equity and justice.

I grew up in Mexico, where every graduating university student must dedicate a year of public service before they proceed to private employment. And some limited loan forgiveness programs have worked in certain sectors like teaching at the state level.

California can pave the way by creating multiple avenues to increase college accessibility like dual enrollment between high schools and community colleges, free or subsidized community college and service credits for fields like nursing, engineering, computer science, teaching and human service careers.

If we are truly to lean in and lift our young people up, we must find innovative solutions that go beyond a “one size fits all” solution.

“We have to shift our thinking regarding when learning begins for children”

Kim Belshe - Executive Director of First 5 LA

The first thing I’d do is be honest with Californians about the real costs and consequences of our children’s education experience – from cradle to career. Right now, parents throughout California are paying UC-level fees for child care and preschool. How can we expect them to save for their kids’ college education? Children have a right to a quality education. We have to shift our thinking regarding when learning begins for children and start earlier so kids finish strong and are prepared to compete for good-paying jobs in a dynamic economy. That’s something we all can benefit from.

“All California students deserve the equivalent amount of support”

Roger Salazar - President of ALZA Strategies

I would increase/expand Cal Grant funding. With California’s UC/CSU system over capacity, California’s students are more and more likely to attend an independent college or university. In addition, many of our students are forced to choose an out of state institution. All California students deserve the equivalent amount of support, irrespective of whether they attend a public or private university and, quite frankly, whether or not they attend a California college or university.

It would also have the benefit of stopping the ‘brain drain,’ making it more likely the student who leaves California for school would return to their home state after their education is complete.

Let’s get our kids to college – starting with early childhood education

Deborah Kong - Program Officer of The David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Children, Families, and Communities program

The first step is making sure our kids get to college in the first place. Too many of our students are not graduating from high school and enrolling in college. Children who attend high-quality early education programs are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and earn more, according to research that followed children who attended a high-quality early learning program and measured its long-term effects into adulthood.

As California policymakers consider how to increase access to high-quality early learning, they must not forget that it is only quality programs that deliver those outcomes. And at the heart of quality are teachers who have the resources, support, and funding to help children develop the brains, bodies, and relationships they need for success in school and in life.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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