For 58 years, California's Cal Grant program has been key to expanding access to higher education for California's youths. The financial aid provided has allowed low-income students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college, to pursue degrees and careers that parents had only dreamed of for their children.
Cal Grants allow California students to choose an institution of higher education where they feel they are most likely to succeed, whether it be the University of San Diego, a private, nonprofit institution, or a public university such as the University of California, San Diego. This aid program has allowed hundreds of thousands of students to benefit from a higher education at California's public and private, nonprofit colleges and universities.
The Cal Grant program has been built upon California's strength of having high-quality public and private universities. The state's ability to leverage the capacity in the private nonprofit sector was the premise on which the program was created. It is not only cost-efficient, but also smart policy that works for the benefit of students. It truly has been one of California's most successful public-private partnerships, offering a tremendous return on California taxpayers' investment.
Now, this partnership is in jeopardy. One might even say it is in peril. Even though the average family income is a mere $16,523 for Cal Grant B students and $41,300 for Cal Grant A students, those attending a private nonprofit college or university have been the target of cuts within the program. Over the past decade, the award amount, adjusted to the current dollar, has been in steady decline. In the last two years, the award amount has been slashed by more than 6 percent, and the state is slated to further reduce the award by an additional 11 percent. If this reduction goes forward, the maximum Cal Grant award for students in the private, nonprofit sector will be less than the grant amount 16 years ago.
As graduates and former Cal Grant recipients who attended a private, nonprofit university, this is fundamentally shortsighted. Cutting these grants further will be a crippling blow to low-income students and their families, and will be detrimental to our state economy in dire need of more college-educated workers. As the state reduces aid for these low-income students, they are also reducing opportunities, not only for the student, but also for their families and communities.
The state is losing out on capacity in the private, nonprofit sector and the generous institutional aid that these colleges and universities provide to make a college education feasible for low-income families. This public-private partnership saves taxpayers money and provides a significant public benefit - it must be preserved.
Furthermore, the state Legislature recently adopted a new $300 million financial aid program exclusively for students who attend the University of California and California State University. Students whose family incomes range from $90,000 to $150,000 are now eligible to receive a "middle-class scholarship." It is of course important that the state seek ways to better support middle-class families' access to higher education, but it is equally important that our low-income students are protected.
Now is the time to reverse the decline in the Cal Grant program and invest in the low-income students who choose to attend a private, nonprofit college or university. Their families are California taxpayers. They attended California high schools and worked hard to make it to the next level. Upon their graduation, they will serve California with pride and contribute to our economy.
We are all personal examples of the significant impact these grants make in one's life - both in pursuing our college dream and in our development as professionals and engaged Californians. Without this financial support, we would never have become a NASA astronaut or a labor leader representing more than 600,000 workers in the state. As former Cal Grant recipients who attended private, nonprofit colleges in the state, we thank you for your investment in us and urge the governor and Legislature to protect this investment for today's generation of students.
Mariá Elena Durazo is executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a 1975 graduate of St. Mary's College of California. José Moreno Hernández is a NASA astronaut in the space shuttle program and a 1984 graduate of University of the Pacific.