Gov. Schwarzenegger’s freeze of the Cal Grant, the state’s primary college financial aid program for low-income students, and his plan to eliminate it in its entirety is both short-sighted and cruel. It backtracks on the promise to make higher education available to all eligible students. Republicans who have signed a pledge to never raise taxes are in fact cynically taxing those who can least afford it, low income students, by increasing fees and rescinding grants.
As the college advisor at a large urban high school, I see every day the hard work, courage and determination students have put in to reach their goal of going to college. Many will be the first in their family to attend. This has meant long hours working to contribute to family expenses while keeping up with homework, rising early to take younger siblings to school or day care, foregoing high school extracurricular activities to take care of siblings after school, and finding ways to get help with their studies because they cannot afford tutoring help and their parents cannot help them because they have not completed high school. For some it has meant learning a new language while completing college entrance requirements. The promise of attending college has kept many going.
The freeze on Cal Grants goes into effect now, meaning that students in the class of 2009 who have been awarded the grant are having it taken away. More than 118,000 high school students from low income families have made their decisions on which college to attend based on promises of receiving a Cal Grant. Now they must each scramble to find thousands of dollars to fill the gap left by this loss. Many have paid housing deposits and other fees and applied for the maximum amount of loans available. At this late date, their choices are few. Tens of thousands may choose to attend a California community college instead, only to find that due to budget cuts there and greatly increased enrollment, the classes they need are already full.
Beyond each personal tragedy is the impact this will have on California’s economy in the long-term. To be competitive on the world market, California needs educated, skilled workers. Denying tens of thousands of students a higher education every year will lead to higher unemployment, which will put additional pressure on the state budget and further erode the quality of life.
Cal State trustee William Hauck stated earlier this year that graduating fewer students from the Cal States will mean that many people who are needed in the workforce will not be there. Trustee Herb Carter, added, “For every dollar that is spent on a student in higher education in this state in the CSU, we give back to the state something in the neighborhood of $4.75. This is not charity for students; this is in the best interest of the state of California.”
The state’s philosophy has moved from seeing education as a public good (for the future of society and the economy) to regarding it as a private benefit to be purchased in the marketplace, available only to those who can pay for it. What will happen to those adults who do not have the opportunity to get the education they need to find a fulfilling job to support themselves and their families? Our priorities are completely wrong if the state continues to find money for prisons and not for the education needed for our children.
We must urge the state Legislature and the governor to rethink this short-sighted proposal to end the Cal Grant program and reinstate it in full.
Ilene Abrams is writing on behalf of the Berkeley High School Counseling Department.