Perez tuition aid plan not best way to increase college access, analyst says

jsanders@sacbee.comJune 14, 2013 

A massive middle-class scholarship program in the proposed state budget ranked last among options for increasing college access in findings prepared, but not released publicly, by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Pushed hard by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, the middle-class scholarship plan was approved by a joint legislative conference committee as part of a wide-ranging budget deal struck by legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Affordability is Perez's target – not the college access issue cited by the LAO, said John Vigna, Pérez's spokesman.

"You're looking at two separate issues," Vigna said. "The issue of affordability is what we're trying to address here. Middle-class families who can't pay for it out-of-pocket and don't qualify for financial aid are getting squeezed very hard by these fee hikes."

Improving access certainly is not the only rationale for subsidizing tuition, but state law targets "equal opportunity and access" to colleges as the primary purpose of student financial aid programs, said Judy Heiman, the LAO analyst who was the lead author of the findings.

Heiman concluded that there are a half-dozen better ways to improve college access than to spend up to $305 million annually on middle-class scholarships.

Heiman came to the committee session Monday night having ranked middle-class scholarships last among seven options for improving college access – from subsidizing enrollment growth with state funds to expanding a Cal Grant aid program for low-income students.

Heiman was not asked to discuss her findings by the committee, which approved Pérez's middle-class scholarship plan with little discussion as part of a compromise $96.3 billion state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The session essentially rubber-stamped a budget deal hammered out last weekend by representatives of Brown, Pérez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. There was little substantive debate on any issue and little straying from the leaders' pact.

Steinberg and Pérez each won key concessions from Brown as part of the budget. The Senate leader received commitments to bolster state mental health services. The Assembly leader won the middle-class scholarships that he sought unsuccessfully last year.

The Legislature is expected to take a floor vote on the new budget today.

Heiman said the four-page handout was given to consultants of the joint budget conference committee but was not released publicly because "we typically don't post items that we end up not presenting."

After The Bee obtained a copy of her findings, Heiman stood by them, saying that rising tuition can be a hardship to middle-class Californians but that many respond by borrowing more money, working extra hours or finding some other way to attend college.

"It certainly helps with affordability," Heiman said of middle-class scholarships. "But it's less likely to make the difference in whether a student will attend or not."

Added Debbie Cochrane of the Institute for College Access and Success in Oakland: "There's a fundamental difference between making it more comfortable to pay for college and making it possible for students to attend and keep going until they graduate."

Heiman made no recommendation on approving or rejecting Pérez's middle-class scholarship plan. "That's really a judgment call better left to our elected officials," she said.

Vigna, Pérez's spokesman, said the Assembly leader was not aware of Heiman's findings when the conference committee voted and did nothing to discourage discussion or release of the LAO document.

Pérez supports Cal Grants for low-income students and he fought to protect them during the budget crisis, Vigna said, but there's also a vital need to assist middle-class families hammered by soaring tuition in recent years.

"They're taking on an extraordinary level of debt," Vigna said. "As soon as students graduate, they have to begin making loan payments that can last 10 or 20 years. That's money we're sending to out-of-state banks rather than keeping it here to help the California economy."

Due largely to California's recession, tuition and fee costs at University of California campuses have skyrocketed from $6,636 to $12,192 since 2007, and from $2,772 to $5,472 at California State University campuses.

Pérez's plan would pay up to 40 percent of a student's UC or CSU tuition in families earning up to $100,000 annually in household income. Financial aid would drop, on a sliding scale, to 10 percent of tuition at $150,000 in household income.

"This will make a tremendous difference in the lives of middle-class families," Vigna said.

The program would be implemented in stages, starting with $750,000 in startup funds in 2013-14. Annual costs would rise to $107 million the following year and would cap at $305 million in 2017-18.

Steinberg said he has high regard for LAO findings but that elected officials set policy – and he supports the notion of giving middle-class families a significant boost to help pay tuition.

Republican Sen. Bill Emmerson of Hemet, a member of the budget conference committee, said he does not recall seeing Heiman's findings. But even if they had been discussed, he said, the scholarship plan probably would have passed.

"I think the deal was pretty much done," he said of the budget vote.

Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, a Camarillo Republican who serves on the conference committee, said that any benefit of middle-class scholarships could be muted by future increases in tuition.

"It's misleading to the public to create a middle-class scholarship without a freeze on student tuition and fees," he said.

Democrats shelved legislation by Gorell and other GOP legislators to freeze UC and CSU tuition for four years.

But Steinberg said state leaders remain committed to holding the line on tuition hikes.

MONEY FOR COLLEGE

In an unpublished report, the Legislative Analyst's Office ranked seven options to increase student access to college. Scholarships for the middle class ranked last.

1. Increase Cal Grant amounts for living expenses, books and vocational education.

2. Increase Cal Grant amounts for qualifying private colleges.

3. Increase the number of Cal Grants directed at older, nontraditional students.

4. Increase funding to UC, CSU and community colleges for enrollment growth.

5. Cover first-year tuition for low- income students who generally do not qualify for tuition aid because they have a sub-3.0 GPA.

6. Eliminate income and asset test for grant renewals.

7. Fund middle-class scholarship program.

Source: Legislative Analyst's Office

Call Jim Sanders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @jwsanders55.

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