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Rebirth of a Promise

A bipartisan effort for tuition aid is a worthy if incomplete move toward restoring the educational hope that California once offered.

August 27, 2000

California was the nation's unquestioned leader in higher education in the 1960s, after UC President Clark Kerr teamed up with Democratic and Republican leaders to form a master plan that offered a high-quality, tuition-free college education to every interested student. The state faltered after leaders started gutting higher education budgets in the late 1970s. Today, fees at state schools have risen and the proportion of California high school graduates going on to college, 51.3%, substantially trails the national average, 57.2%.

State leaders appear ready to regain some educational ground by approving a bipartisan plan to more than double the number of students receiving Cal Grants, which are modest state-paid scholarships. The revamped and expanded grants, which students could use for tuition and fees in either private or public colleges, could end up costing a whopping $1.2 billion a year. However, the direct cost of this well-meant program is only part of its price. Where would a big influx of college students go to class? Where would students who need remedial English or math obtain the help? These problems need not kill the program, but they should be thought through.

The Cal Grant expansion is significant not just for its size, which could be scaled down in future lean years, but for its intent to even out uncertainties in present funding: Currently, a student awarded a grant one year may not get it the next. Legislators began crafting the Cal Grant expansion in response to Gov. Gray Davis' proposal to set aside $1,000 for a high school student for each year he or she scored in the top 10% statewide on standardized tests. Senate President John Burton (D-San Francisco)--quoting a legislative analysis showing that Davis' proposal would greatly favor affluent schools--joined Sens. Chuck Poochigian (R-Fresno) and Deborah V. Ortiz (D-Sacramento) to craft the Cal Grant expansion, which essentially promises college aid to high school students with at least a B average.

The grants would be means-tested, and a family of four making more than $64,100 would be excluded. Currently, high-income students with only average ability are considerably more likely to pursue higher education than low-income students with high ability.

Meanwhile, the Cal Grant expansion may well endanger resources for other higher education needs. For example, the state has yet to begin repairs on decrepit community college buildings. All of California's colleges and universities will soon be filled to bursting, and adding to that demographic tidal wave without adding capacity is foolhardy.

There's also no certainty that state leaders will fund the Cal Grant expansion in the long term as generously as they are now. But even if the Cal Grant expansion is scaled back, its existence shows that state Republican and Democratic leaders are still capable of working together, as they did in the '60s, to realize worthy ideals in higher education. Despite the expense and likely collateral effects of the measure, its goals are well worth pursuing.

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