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Potential cuts to Cal Grants trigger protest

College students from private and independent universities rally outside the Capitol building on March 7 to protest against cuts to the state financial aid program, CalGrant.


You might think the state’s goal to reduce the deficit estimated to be more than $9.2 billion means two things – taxes will increase or programs will be cut. But is it really that simple? Not really, especially when political gridlock prevents solutions from passing.

To bridge the gap, Governor Jerry Brown is lobbying voters to approve a tax reform plan. It would increase taxes by one percent for Californians earning over $250,000, by two percent for those earning $500,000, and it would temporarily increase the sales tax by half-a-percent. If the proposal does not pass this November, Brown has suggested a series of trigger cuts, including a reduction to the state financial aid low- and middle-income college students receive through the program Cal Grant.

Speaking last December, the Governor said, “These cuts to the university, to support in-home services, the schools, they’re not good. This is not the way we would like to run California, but we have to live within our means.”

Unsurprisingly, the proposed cuts sparked intense lobbying from groups trying to protect their interests.

Hector Martinez, a business student at the University of San Francisco, dreams of becoming a CEO. His Cal Grant provides him the time to do things he is passionate about, such as playing intramural basketball and presiding over USF’s Salvadoran Student Union.

Martinez says, “My parents and I depend on the Cal Grant for my education at USF. If I lost some of that money, it would be more difficult for me to achieve my goals here.”

The Cal Grant program was created 60 years ago to give low-income students an opportunity to afford private colleges. Martinez, who currently receives the maximum Cal Grant award of $9,708, would face a 44-percent reduction if the Governor’s proposal passed. The cuts would affect more than 26,000 students in California.

Last month, students from around the state rallied in Sacramento in support of Cal Grants. Kristen Soares, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, which organized the event, hosts rallies in support of the Cal Grant every year. Normally about 50 people show up, but this time there were more than 200.

Soares says, “It's easy in the Capitol to forget how issues impact people, so it's important for them to hear. It's important for them to see.”

Santa Clara University political science major Gustavo Magana told a crowd gathered on the Capitol steps, "I grew up being told by my family, administrators, people in my community that I wasn't supposed to do anything more than become a drug dealer. I wasn't supposed to do anything more than go to jail. I wasn't supposed to do anything than be a gang banger or just end up dead.”

Shamoya Washington, a second year political science student at USC, says part of her motivation to lobby state administrators is to challenge stereotypes.

"They think the University of Southern California is the ‘University of Spoiled Children,’ but no,” she says. “We have the students that are struggling there, the ‘University of Starving Children.’ There is no way we would be able to afford USC, a school that's tuition is almost 60 thousand dollars if there wasn't a Cal Grant."

Democrat Assemblymember Susan Bonilla, chair of the Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance, heard from many students at a budget meeting held the day of the rally. Her committee rejected the proposed cuts to the Cal Grant. 

She says the message to the Governor is clear. “Find the cuts somewhere else,” she says. “We’re drawing a line to protecting our neediest students.”

But it’s not ultimately her decision. And if the Governor’s tax measure fails, he, like other recent California Governors, will look for further education cuts to balance the state’s books. In addition to award reductions, Brown has suggested an increase in GPA requirements to qualify for the Cal Grant, further diminishing state involvement with funding higher education. For example, this year for the first time, student tuition covers more of the costs at the University of California schools than the state pays.

At some private schools, the cutbacks may have less of a noticeable effect. Stanford carries a $13.8 billion endowment, giving it more flexibility. But at USF, which has less than two percent of that, state reductions might force big policy changes.  

USF Director of Financial Aid Norman Caito says, “I don't know that we will be able to do a lot for new students. I think newer students are going to have to make a decision on USF based on the lower amount, but I think that for continuing students, the University will find some way to make it possible for students to stay, if they wouldn't otherwise be able to financially.”

USF student Paige del Rio isn’t taking any chances. She’s currently taking 22 units between USF and City College of San Francisco to qualify for a transfer.

She says, "I've put in applications already, actually, for the fall at SF State, UC Berkeley and UC Davis as a back up because it's just not a reality for me if the funding is cut. I can't afford to be at USF.”

If cuts aren’t made to Cal Grant, and the Governor’s tax plan doesn’t get voter approval, other state programs would be affected. Medi-Cal, CalWorks, Healthy Families, and in-home supportive services are subject to trigger cuts in Brown’s proposal.

Republicans have put another option on the table called “Roadmap to Protect Classrooms and Taxpayers.” Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chair Jim Nielsen has said it would generate $4.4 billion through unused redevelopment funds and cuts to low income housing, state worker pay, and money from prison mental health services.

He says, “Our budget respects hard working Californians that are already paying the highest income taxes in the nation, in what CEO magazine defines as the worst business climate in the nation. Our budget actions can help our economic recovery or dampen it. We believe our plan protects education while not stifling California fledgling economic recovery.”

The debate regarding trigger cuts will continue. California’s budget is due June 15. How the state will treat higher education hangs in the balance.