Originally published in the Sacramento Bee Op-Ed section on April 8, 2015

Over the past month, hundreds of thousands of California high school seniors have received college acceptance letters. My institution, the University of Southern California, has 2,700 freshman slots and received nearly 52,000 applications – the third most of any private university in the country.

The vast majority of those we admitted rank in the top 10 percent of their high school’s graduating class. Even as USC stands among the nation’s most selective schools, we are also one of the most diverse: 23 percent of undergraduates are under-represented minorities and nearly 20 percent are the first in their families to attend college.

About 23 percent receive federal Pell grants and of our California undergraduates, about 1 in 5 receive Cal Grants. USC has more Cal Grant students than any other private university in the state, and it is the only elite private research university in the nation to widely recruit community college transfers – more than 800 every year – many of whom are also Cal Grant recipients.

While Cal Grants to public institutions have increased in value, those for students at private nonprofit universities have decreased. The maximum awarded to University of California students is $12,192 a year, but only $9,084 for the same student at a private university. This difference narrows choices for low-income students.

It also adds to the tax burden for Californians. This is because at private nonprofit schools, Cal Grants are supplemented by private donations. These students provide the state with a high return on its investment. Our Cal Grant students graduate at an 89 percent rate, close to the overall 91 percent rate. At public universities, taxpayers subsidize the remainder of a student’s education, even after the Cal Grant has been paid.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the average annual cost to taxpayers for one Cal Grant student at a private nonprofit school is $8,800, compared to $25,600 at a UC school. If a student is academically qualified to attend a private university, the state should not put up barriers.

Yet the chasm continues to grow. Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2015-16 budget recommends a further 11.3 percent cut in the maximum Cal Grant to new students at private nonprofit colleges, the third reduction in four years. Over the last 15 years, this maximum award value has decreased by more than 37 percent, adjusted for inflation.

The Legislature is looking at Assembly Bill 831, introduced by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, which would reverse this trend and equalize Cal Grants allocations. I will lead a delegation of USC trustees and leaders Wednesday at the state Capitol to encourage our elected officials to pass this bill and send low-income students a clear message: “You will not be punished for exploring your full range of academic options.”

At USC, we will continue recruiting the most talented students regardless of economic background. It is my hope that the state likewise treats students at public and private universities equally.