Since 1955, California has provided a vital funding bridge to higher education for needy students. I know about this firsthand. It was only because of the state's Cal Grant program that I was able to attend college at what is now Loyola Marymount University, and many students at Santa Clara University, where I am president, are benefiting from the grants today.
But the Cal Grant program, which has provided funding for more than 2.3 million students in the state since it was launched, is in jeopardy.
The 59-year-old program has always been a partnership between the state and its public and private colleges and universities, and that partnership has greatly expanded opportunities for the youth of this state. It has allowed students from low-income families to attend higher education institutions of their choice, whether they opted for a public university like UCLA or San Jose State University, or a private one like Loyola Marymount or Santa Clara.
That parity for public and private institutions was an essential part of the whole Cal Grant program, which was originally devised specifically to help enable qualified California high school graduates to attend private, nonprofit institutions if they so chose, rather than public ones. But that kind of choice is in jeopardy because of cuts to the Cal Grant awards available to students who choose private schools over state schools.
Over the last decade, the amount of grants offered to students attending private institutions has been severely eroded by inflation. More recently, state budget cuts have slashed the maximum award to such students by 6%. And for the
2014-15 school year, things will be even worse: Incoming students at private, nonprofit universities will face an additional 11% cut, which will bring the maximum grant to $8,056, the lowest in 16 years.
The cuts to Cal Grants were a shortsighted patch to the state budget when the economy was in dire straits. By making it possible for students to attend private institutions as well as public ones, the grants have reduced enrollment pressure on California's public colleges and universities. Not only does the state save by not having to subsidize these students in its public schools, but it also doesn't have to build additional campuses to accommodate more students.
California needs more well-trained workers, not fewer, if its economy is going to grow, and California's public universities alone won't be able to meet the demand. A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that by 2025, California will be short 1 million college-educated workers. These workers not only are essential to the state's labor pool, but they also buy things from California businesses, pay local and state taxes, and go on to create more jobs. Cutting Cal Grant opportunities to needy students now is almost certain to harm the state in the future.
Ultimately, cutting Cal Grants is cutting opportunity and equity for California's young people. The program is integral to low-income students and their families. All California families pay taxes to support this program, and if their children have financial need, they should have access to the program's benefits, whether they choose to attend a public or a private institution.
In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Jerry Brown noted that California's economy is recovering and that the budget is in surplus. The state certainly needs to be prudent in its spending, but investments in educating Californians will produce excellent returns.
Attending Loyola was what allowed me to achieve my California dream of becoming a teacher, an academic and a priest. Brown and the Legislature should act to ensure that today's youth have the same opportunities to turn their dreams into reality.
Michael E. Engh is a Jesuit priest and the president of Santa Clara University.