Members of UCSC’s Student Union Assembly speak at the UCSA meeting. This year’s conference resulted in the creation of a campaign to save Cal Grants. Photo by Jenny Cain.
Members of UCSC’s Student Union Assembly speak at the UCSA meeting. This year’s conference resulted in the creation of a campaign to save Cal Grants. Photo by Jenny Cain.

The University of California Student Association (UCSA) voted in early August to campaign for the preservation of Cal Grants by pushing the state to amend its constitution.

The campaign came in response to Gov. Swarzenegger’s proposed state budget revision that opts to phase out Cal Grants starting in 2011. If Cal grants are not made permanent prior to that date, nearly half the undergraduate population at UCSC could eventually be affected.

“We want to move the Cal Grant from discretionary to something that is funded, mandatory, year after year, as part of the budget,” said Victor Sanchez, Student Union Assembly External Vice Chair.

UC Santa Cruz played host to this year’s UCSA congress. Each year UCSA holds a congress during which students from 9 of the UC campuses can discuss the pressing issues affecting higher education. Students from all UC campuses attended this year’s congress except those from UC Davis.

During a UCSA congress, which usually lasts three days, students receive information about issues affecting higher education and learn how to organize campaigns around those issues. At the end of every congress students vote on one yearly campaign.

Last year, students at the congress voted to focus on the College Affordability Act (CAA), which would freeze tuition for five years and create revenue for higher education by placing a 1% tax on Californians making over a $1 million a year. Despite the bill failing to pass, UCSA members said that the campaign organized around it allowed the assembly to develop legislative connections and networks.

“[Last year’s] campaign itself was successful about raising awareness, about the cost of college and the need to address college affordability issues,” said Matthew Palm, the SUA commissioner of academic affairs. “It’s unfortunate the bill did not make it as far as it could have. But we built up our voter registration base and our outreach base. We didn’t get what we wanted but in the process we really built up our organization capacity.”

This year, Sanchez, along with other members of UCSA, voted for a Cal Grant preservation campaign, hoping to salvage the grants before they completely phase out. Although Gov. Schwarzenegger approved not to cut Cal Grants for the upcoming fiscal year, the program is expected to face major losses in the near future.

If legislation preserving Cal Grants is successful in the primary election next year, it will “theoretically” take affect Jan. 1 2011, Sanchez said.

While the types and dollar amounts of Cal Grants vary depending upon qualifications, eligibility and the type of degree being pursued, undergraduate students with a 2.4 GPA or better, who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as well as the Cal Grant application can potentially earn up to $9,700 a year. This amount my go towards private school tuition and fees, or provide up to $7,788 a year towards UC system-wide fees. According to a university statement, 7,000 UCSC students receive a combined total of $30 million dollars.

The proposal to cut funding for the grants is partly due to the states GOP members’ attempt to close the state’s $26 billion dollar deficit. By reducing future expenses, like educational grants, the government has a greater ability to reduce its current debt and borrow more money through financial markets. But the state government must prove to the financial markets that it is solvent, or able to pay back its debtors when debts are due.

If Cal Grants are completely eliminated, however, Sanchez says that other types of grants will likely garner more interest and, thus, the budgetary pressure will simply be displaced, not eliminated.

“Those who get UC Grants most of the time don’t get Cal Grants,” he said. “The financial aid system is a delicate balance of grants and aid. If the Cal Grant aid gets eliminated, other grants would need to fill the void.”

In a June 19 letter to students and their parents who receive Cal Grants, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission Diana Fuentes-Michel explained that a lack of government funding will affect the program.

“The [State Budget Conference Committee] has authorized…Cal Grant programmatic reductions, beginning in 2010-11 [which include] freezing the income eligibility for Cal Grant A recipients at the 2008-09 level and reducing the maximum Cal Grant award for all private college award recipients by five percent from $9,708 to $9,223,” Fuentes-Michel wrote.

On the first day of congress UCSA members expressed their understanding of the state budget crisis, but said that they remain unforgiving of major cutbacks, like the potential elimination of Cal Grants, that only affect students.

Although SUA commissioner Palm originally hoped to run with a campaign that would generate revenue for higher education he said that he was happy about the success of the preservation of Cal Grant campaign among UCSA members.

“I’m happy and excited and hopeful about the outcome. We are going to try and put [Cal Grants] in the permanent budget…by amendment and try and get it passed in the state legislature,” Palm said. “The fact is there has been a lot of talk about decentralizing the Cal Grants… as a way to save money.”

Palm said some a proposal to save money would be eliminating the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC). By reducing that body, he said, and putting the awards process in the hands of individual financial aid offices on each campus. This is called the localization of the cal grants.

Palm said that in spite of budget cuts individual financial aid offices do not have the staff to take on the work of CSAC.