Monday's decision by the University of California and the California State University to raise student fees has placed a harsh new spotlight on college affordability.
Lost in the debate over access are thousands of high-achieving students in California who find they are unable to afford college because they were brought into this country illegally as children -- and hence are ineligible for state and federal financial aid.
Continuing our historic commitment to access is not only good for individual students, it is essential to the prosperity of the state.
As a new report from the California Research Bureau released Monday makes clear, a college-educated workforce is vital to the high-growth industries that drive the state economy.
But the questions that must be answered -- especially in hard budget times -- are who will have access to college and who will we count on to sustain California's economy in the years to come?
The key that unlocks the door to college for many students is the Cal Grant program, designed to give scholarships to all needy high school students in California who meet rigorous academic standards.
This is a cost-effective investment in our future. But the sad fact is that we deny this vital financial aid to thousands of well-qualified students who, brought here illegally by their parents as youngsters, remain undocumented.
The vast majority of undocumented students see themselves as Californians. They plan to live, work and raise their families here. They are a part of our collective future.
We can invest in that future by creating a special fund from unclaimed Cal Grant dollars to be used as a pool for a competitive scholarship program for undocumented students. The competition could be modeled on the existing Cal Grant program and based on need, scholastic merit and length of residency in California.
Assembly Bill 540, the legislation passed last year that made some undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates at many public colleges, could serve as a model -- and a spur to action.
Despite the new opportunities created by AB 540, most academically qualified undocumented students are still unable to attend college because of their lack of access to state and federal financial aid.
At a private liberal arts college like Occidental, almost three-quarters of the student body receive some form of financial aid. Most of those packages include a substantial amount of state and federal grants and loans.
Only a few of the most generously endowed colleges and universities can afford to provide the kind of aid most undocumented students require -- if they are willing to accept applications from undocumented students at all.
Brought to this country at a young age, many undocumented students have grown up as Americans and share in the traditional American belief that hard work and achievement are the tickets to success. Many of these young people have the potential to become leaders in industry, education and civic life.
It's time to take another step toward claiming this important resource and helping the Cal Grant program work to secure a future of opportunity for all.