There’s no doubt that community colleges, Cal States and UC campuses have been clobbered by California’s budget problems.

You might think private colleges and universities are unaffected – but you’d be wrong.

They – and particularly their low-income students – will be hurt badly if Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 40 percent cut to the size of Cal Grants for students at private institutions takes effect.

That means a student at the University of La Verne/Redlands whose family income is low enough to qualify for a Cal Grant of $9,708 this year would get just $5,472 for 2012-13. That could be devastating for a student who’s already living on the edge financially, from a family that can’t afford to pay or borrow more.

That could push the student out of the private school, with its smaller class sizes, and into a public university – which actually costs taxpayers more – and where there’s a good chance the student wouldn’t get into the classes he or she needs. Or it could even push that student out of college altogether, which costs all of us in term of future workforce and economic vitality.

The Inland Empire, where college graduation rates are already among the worst in the nation, really can’t afford to reduce our college-educated population any further.

That’s the case presented to our editorial board last week by an impressive gathering of presidents, provosts and vice-presidents of the Inland Empire’s private, not-for-profit universities and colleges.

These executives were particularly concerned because this Cal Grant cut threatens to decrease the diversity of private university undergraduate students in the Inland Empire, where 57 percent of the 4,001 Cal Grant recipients are students of color.

That’s a particular worry for a place like the University of La Verne, which prides itself on student body diversity and where 36 percent of the students are Latinos.

The original purpose of the Cal Grant when initiated in 1955, University of Redlands President James Appleton reminded us, was to provide the state a dependable way to send students to independent colleges. It was – and is – cheaper for the state to help a student go through a private college with a Cal Grant than to get that student through a CSU or UC.

The state sends $37,000 to send a Cal Grant student through private school, $47,000 for CSU and $96,000 for UC (as of 2010). It takes longer to get through the public schools – only 18 percent of CSU students graduate in four years, compared to 54 percent at UCs and 71 percent at privates.

The size of a Cal Grant for a private college student hasn’t increased in 11 years, by the way, so it’s not as though a 40 percent cut would take it back to the size it was a few years ago.

Surprisingly, the average family income for a Cal Grant A student is under $41,000 at independent, nonprofit universities, compared to nearly $60,000 at CSUs.

One common public perception is that the private colleges have huge endowments that enable them to make up the loss of funds. That’s true to some extent for some of the Claremont Colleges, with their national reputations, but less so for the other privates in this area.

Appleton said U of R earns $5 million a year from its endowment, and already spends $40 million a year on student aid – only 10 percent of the student body pays the tuition “sticker price.”

Unfortunately, it’s a shrunken state revenue pie from which each worthwhile state-funded endeavor is trying to preserve the size of its slice. The private university executives we talked to certainly understand that. And one thing they’re adamant about is that public higher education should absorb no more hits – not to fund Cal Grants at the privates or for any other reason.

The state Legislative Analyst’s Office backs them up that it’s counterproductive to cut Cal Grants – not only financially in the short term but for the state’s long-term economic viability.

There are less harmful budget cuts to be made.

For more on grants and grant writing, visit Grant Pros.

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