Consider this: The State of California spends over $2 billion per year to provide financial aid for hundreds of thousands of college students with the most financial need. In the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, the majority of the over 400,000 undergraduate students are from low-income families and 80% of all CSU students receive some combination of state, federal, and/or institutional financial aid. As a result, nearly 2 out of 3 CSU students don’t pay tuition at all.
Intuitively, the description of the financial aid system in California might lead you to believe that low-income students are taken care of—they don’t have to worry about tuition, so all is good, right? Not quite.
In fact, the exact opposite is true. Since tuition for Cal State students comprises only about a quarter of the total cost to attend (and as mentioned earlier, the majority of students don’t pay tuition), students are scrambling to cover all of the other expenses like housing, food, textbooks, and transportation, just to name a few. Even after taking their financial aid into account, students would have to work an unreasonable amount of hours to cover the entire cost, so most students have little choice but to take out student loans.
And in a recent report, “Where Debt Comes Due at CSU: Unequal Debt Burdens Among California State University Graduates,” the Cal State Student Association (CSSA) and The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) found that despite the seemingly significant amount of financial aid available to Cal State students with the most financial need, student loan debt is concentrated among the lowest-income college grads.
Approximately 90,000 students graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Cal State system in 2015-16, and over half of them graduated with student loan debt. Of those students who graduated with student loan debt, nearly 8 out of 10 were from family incomes of less than $54,000. And not only were low-income students the majority of those with student loan debt, but their average amount of student loan debt was greater than $16,000 (not tremendously different from the average for higher-income students).