Editorial: Protecting Excellence: The Threats Facing Student Aid

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Count 'em: Several million dollars will be returned from the Cal Grant state financial aid program to the California general fund.

Millions of dollars that belong in the hands of students who need it to pay for higher education will be dumped back into bureaucratic slush, mainly because of lack of publicity and overestimation of eligible students.

Despite its flaws, California has a superb system while student financial aid is lagging in much of the country. But there are trends that may threaten the state's vital student financial aid in the future.

California apparently has it pretty good, at least compared to other states. According to a study just released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the cost of public higher education has risen faster than spending on financial aid.

Poor families spent 25 percent of their annual income on public four-year colleges in 2000. This is nearly doubled from the 13 percent spent in 1980-Higher education is becoming more expensive for the people who can afford it the least.

While California's financial aid has managed to stay ahead of slowly increasing tuition costs, several factors may endanger aid in the future. The flaws in the Cal Grants system and distribution must be fixed before tightening budgets squeeze off the excess money the aid program has failed to dole out the last two years.

The state budget is constricting on all fronts because of the past economic downturn and energy crisis. If Cal Grants fails to use its generous funds again next year, the money returned annually to the general fund will be an easy target for law-makers looking for money to save and programs to trim.

The excellent financial aid program at each UC may also be at risk. The customized program at each campus may be lumped into the same commission that handles Cal Grants-an ominous proposition considering the past mistakes of this monstrous agency.

Even the The Bush Administration is looking to save money on the financial aid program. It recently floated a plan to impose varying rates on the current single, low interest rate consolidated federal loans offer students. This would make loans much less costly for the government but terribly tougher on borrowers. Luckily, fierce opposition forced a Bush retreat.

California's admirable financial aid system is facing some formidable, yet defeatable, enemies in the future. The first steps are to repair the Cal Grant system and keep UC financial aid local, not centralized. We must cherish the financial aid that enrolls in UC more low-income students than any other top public or private university in the country.


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