The financial picture is looking bleak for college students as federal and state cuts to financial aid are looming.

One of the biggest challenges that outgoing CSU Monterey Bay President Dianne Harrison says her successor will have is turning to private sources for help in this area. But that won't be the only challenge — CSUMB's new president will need to continue the expansion of the relatively young campus and continue to improve the "student experience," Harrison said.

In an interview with The Herald, Harrison, 61, spoke about the strain California's budget problems have placed on CSUMB, the need to focus on real reforms and not on distracting issues, and what the next president will need to do to keep the university moving.

"The other part that's going to be important is to continue engaging deeply in the community here," Harrison said. "As a new campus, that's always a challenge. We don't have a long history of alumni. We have to depend on the community, friends and supporters.

"There's a need for the president, as the face of the university, to be visible and active in the community, responsive and engaged. It's going to be incumbent upon the president to increasingly rely on private sources for student support, faculty support and university support."

Harrison will officially end her tenure at CSUMB at midnight June 10, when she takes on the presidency of CSU Northridge, the largest school in the California State University system.

Claudia Keith, CSU spokeswoman, said an interim president for CSUMB would be named by then.

"The campus will not be left without leadership," she wrote in an email.

Leadership gets taken for granted, Harrison said, but it's necessary. When you have every department focused on their area of expertise — academics, transportation, housing, food services — you need an overseer to guide the college in the direction it needs to go, Harrison said.

"Even if everybody is doing their most focused work, you have to go above that and still think, what are we going to be doing in three years? What will we be able to do to help us be fully prepared for where the job market happens to be at that point? What's our role? Often that's left to the president," Harrison said. "Can a university run without one? Maybe for a short time, but it would be chaos."

There are also more immediate considerations, such as planned cuts to financial aid at the federal and state level.

A little-noticed congressional decision to reduce or eliminate Pell Grants goes into effect July 1. It will affect hundreds of thousands of the poorest college students. Pell Grants provide up to $5,550 a year to help defray the cost of attending college, but starting this summer, students without a high school diploma or a GED will no longer qualify. Changes in income requirements will also reduce the pool of qualifying students, as well as a new limit on how many years a student has to finish their higher education.

Coupled with the federal changes, a proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown could significantly decrease Cal Grant funding and leave some students without grant aid.

In his latest state budget proposal, Brown proposes that eligibility for Cal Grants be tied to eligibility for the Pell Grant — which could leave nearly two out of five new financial aid recipients with smaller or no Cal Grant aid.

"For students who are the neediest financially, we have thus far been able to accommodate tuition increases into their financial aid packages, but now we have potentially another perfect storm," Harrison said. "If we're not able to support our students with as much federal financial aid or state support, then we're back to really getting support from private sources."

The silver lining in the proposed cuts to financial aid is California's "Middle Class Scholarship Act," targeted at students with family incomes of less than $150,000, who right now don't qualify for federal or state financial aid. The proposal would cut fees by two-thirds, and would save CSU students about $4,000 a year.

"Sometimes people assume administrators are not as concerned about the student experience as teachers are, and that's not an accurate picture," Harrison said. "We're all committed and passionate to make sure in this very difficult time that we keep the quality of student education front and center, and that's tough to do when every few months we get more news about additional cuts. So we spend a lot of time planning, trying to anticipate and see if we can generate other kinds of revenue, but there's not a lot of choices out. We can't set up a retail store and reap the profits."

As if to prove her point, she reiterates one of her proudest achievements as president of CSUMB: making it easier for students to navigate the system, leading to increased retention rates. When she arrived in 2006, the campus was struggling to meet its recruitment goals and retention was problematic. In both areas, the campus has improved.

"We have turned a corner on having a campuswide culture that truly is focused on student success," Harrison said. "There are (several) things I'm proud of, but those would be front and center."

Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or