Creating an Affordable-College Model for California

View the Technical Appendix for this report.

View a presentation of this research.

Earlier estimates of this research were published in The Institute for College Access and Success’ (TICAS) compendium Designing Financial Aid for California’s Future.

Historically, the state paid most of the cost of higher education at California’s public institutions: the California Community Colleges (CCC), the California State University (CSU) and the University of California (UC). However, years of budget cuts and tuition hikes have shifted more of the cost to students and their families, especially at the state’s four-year institutions: the CSU and the UC. This cost-shift undermines California’s commitment — as outlined in the Master Plan for Higher Education — to ensuring that a quality higher education is accessible and affordable to all eligible Californians. It also means that more students are graduating with increasing amounts of student loan debt and working excessive hours that impact their ability to graduate on time while others are forgoing higher education altogether.[1] A well-educated workforce is critical to the state’s economic future. Yet, at current rates, California will not produce enough college graduates to meet the demands of the state’s economy in the years ahead.[2]

In order to meet the state’s workforce demands, reforms must be made to ensure all students have access to an affordable higher education that will prepare them to enter the workforce with the skills they need to be successful. One of the greatest challenges for students seeking a higher education, and one of the greatest opportunities for reform, is the design of the financial aid system. Most state and federal student financial aid is linked primarily to tuition and largely fails to assist students with other major costs of college attendance, including housing, food, and transportation. Understanding the full cost of college is essential for decision-makers, advocates, and others who seek to expand college opportunities for all Californians.

This analysis estimates the cost of implementing a state financial aid program designed to enable qualified Californians to pursue undergraduate study full time at any of the three public higher education sectors — the CCC, CSU and UC — eliminating the need for students to take out loans or work unmanageable hours. This analysis develops two models to estimate the cost of an affordable-college program in California. One model estimates the cost of a “shared responsibility” program, in which the state covers students’ remaining unmet financial need after taking into account selected federal grants, an expected parent contribution, an expected student contribution from work earnings, and any currently available state and institutional aid. The second model estimates the cost of a “government responsibility” program, in which the state covers students’ remaining unmet financial need after taking into account only selected federal grants and any currently available state and institutional aid, with no student or parent contribution.

These models are intended to show how the state might calculate the cost of reforms (see the “cost of college” and “paying for college” tables) as well as the total cost of any such changes (see the “total costs” tables). As a point of departure, both of these models assume that all qualified students — based on current estimated enrollment levels at the CCC, the CSU, and the UC during the 2018-19 academic year — would be eligible for new state assistance, regardless of family income. Of course, policymakers could pursue other options. For example, policymakers could choose to focus new state resources on low- and middle-income students, rather than all students, in which case total costs would be lower.

This analysis provides estimates on a per-student, per-sector, and statewide basis. The estimates regarding 1) the cost of college and 2) paying for college are based on the most recent data available from multiple sources. The “cost of college” category consists of institutional costs, such as tuition and fees, and living costs, such as housing and food. The “paying for college” category consists of financial aid as well as expected parent and student contributions (the latter of which are estimated only for the shared responsibility model). A full description of the methodology used to develop this analysis can be found in the Technical Appendix.

Cost of College

Students pursuing a college degree face two main costs: tuition and fees charged by the institution and student-related living expenses such as housing, food, transportation, and books and supplies (often referred to as “non-tuition and fees”). The following table estimates the per-student cost of attendance for each sector. These estimates are for California residents who attend full-time (12 units or more) as an undergraduate at one of the state’s public colleges. This analysis uses full-time enrollment to weight per-student costs by housing type (on-campus, off-campus, or with family), dependency status (dependent or independent), and income (low-income, middle-income, or high-income).

Paying for College

This analysis incorporates three financial resources that help students to cover the cost of college: an expected parent contribution, students’ earnings from work, and financial aid. Parent contribution refers to the amount a student’s parents are estimated to be able to contribute toward college expenses. Expected parent contributions vary by income level — the estimates displayed in the table below are average contributions weighted by family income level. The student earnings figures assume that all students work 15 hours per week at the California minimum wage ($11 per hour) during the academic year and 40 hours per week at the minimum wage during the summer, though some students may choose to make their contribution through borrowing or other means.[3]

The following table shows the average annual amount students and parents are estimated to contribute towards students’ total cost of attendance.

In addition to student and parent contributions, many students pay for college with assistance from federal financial aid. This analysis assumes that all eligible students receive some federal gift aid from the Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). The following table shows average per-student federal award amounts.

California and its public institutions provide a generous amount of financial aid to students from families with low incomes, administering over $4 billion in need-based aid annually. However, most of this aid is targeted towards tuition and fees. Because the goal of this analysis is to estimate the cost of a new state financial aid program that covers any remaining unmet financial need for students’ total cost of attendance, state and institutional aid estimates are not provided on a per-student level.

Affordable College: Two Models

This analysis provides detailed cost estimates for a new state program that allows full-time resident undergraduate Californians to receive an affordable college education at one of the state’s public higher education institutions. This section presents two models for achieving this goal. Each model displays the estimated costs and unmet financial need per sector, based on 2018-19 full-time resident enrollment (430,000 at CCC; 370,000 at CSU; and 180,000 at UC).

Option #1: Shared Responsibility Model

Option #1 estimates the total unmet financial need for qualified students after accounting for an expected parent contribution, an expected student contribution, and existing federal, state, and institutional aid.

Option #2: Government Responsibility Model

Option #2 estimates the total unmet financial need for qualified students after accounting for existing federal, state, and institutional aid, with no parent or student contribution.

Total Costs

The following table displays the total unmet financial need for all three sectors combined, after accounting for existing state and institutional aid, federal aid, and — where applicable — parent and student contributions. The total estimated unmet financial need for the shared responsibility model is $1.8 billion ($411 million at CCC, $939 million at CSU, and $475 million at UC). The total estimated unmet financial need for the government responsibility model is $15 billion ($4.5 billion at CCC, $7 billion at CSU, and $3.5 billion at UC). Both sets of estimates are on top of existing need-based state and institutional aid.

The program costs associated with these two models rely on several assumptions and the best available data regarding costs and enrollment. Actual program costs could vary considerably — increasing or decreasing the estimates presented here. Costs could be higher if enrollment increased significantly due to the availability of additional state-funded financial aid; living costs increased significantly (or were adjusted to reflect regional cost variations); more students lived off-campus; tuition increased; or federal and institutional aid decreased. Alternatively, costs could be lower if more students applied for and received federal financial aid due to increased outreach efforts; the minimum wage increased; more campuses participated in the FSEOG program; parents’ contributions exceeded expectations; federal or institutional aid increased significantly; or the program were limited to students from low-income families.


Ensuring that higher education is accessible and affordable for all Californians who wish to pursue a college degree is a widely shared goal among policymakers. Even with state and institutional aid, students experience significant unmet financial needs that create a barrier to success. Understanding how the current system falls short in helping students to afford a college education is essential to addressing California’s college affordability challenges. This analysis provides two estimates of what an affordable-college program might cost California if the state were to cover unmet financial need for qualified students. While the path forward requires significant investments, California’s students and economy cannot afford to wait.

[1] Estimate based on California’s 2018 minimum wage for employers with 26 employees or more. For more information, see the Technical Appendix.

[2] Michael Mitchell, et al., Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity (Center on Budget Priorities: October 2018); and Lauren Dundes and Jeff Marx, Balancing Work and Academics in College: Why Do Students Working 10-19 Hours per Week Excel? (Journal of College Student Retention: May 2006).

[3] Hans Johnson, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, and Sarah Bohn, Will California Run Out of College Graduates? (Public Policy Institute of California: October 2015).