The Cal Grant program has not kept pace with the changing needs of students, while evolving into a complex patchwork of programs.
By Jose Medina
Assemblymember Jose Medina, a Democrat from Riverside, represents California’s 61st Assembly District. He is chair of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education.
Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, represents Califormnia’s 7th Assembly District. He is chair of the House subcommittee on Education Finance.
Connie Leyva, Special to CalMatters
State Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino, represents California’s 20th Senate District. She is chair of the Senate Education Committee.
We could not imagine the hardships of being a student in 2021. Today, students face numerous hurdles in pursuing higher education, including competitive acceptance rates, the lack of jobs after graduation, delayed degree completion and disjointed resources for housing, basic needs and mental health.
On top of these struggles is figuring out how to pay for college, particularly for those who are low-income, but find themselves locked out of student aid programs. Our students will determine the future of this state, and we must do more to support their academic success.
For more than three years, we have worked with the California Student Aid Commission, educators and student groups to reform the Cal Grant program – our state’s financial aid system. Not only has the program not kept pace with the changing needs of students, it has evolved into a complex patchwork of programs. There is an overwhelming consensus that we must streamline and modernize Cal Grant – and we absolutely agree.
In addition to working on this effort through Assembly Bill 1456, we have actively advocated for and secured historic investments in the budget to achieve debt free college as the chairs of our respective committees. The state budget set two new goals – to increase college attainment to 70% and increase the number of high school seniors completing financial aid applications.
However, California cannot achieve these goals without ensuring our state financial aid resources, coordinated with federal and institutional programs, cover the total cost of education – tuition and fees, as well as housing, food and books that are a growing part of college costs for students.
Several reforms need to be adopted to make Cal Grant accessible and equitable for all who do not have the ability to pay for college. By doing this, we can meet our promises to students. Those reforms need to be addressed through policy and cannot be solved solely through the budget process.
AB 1456 removes all artificial barriers to Cal Grant, such as age, time out of high school and grade point average for university and college students. It simplifies the programs by creating two awards respectively – Cal Grant 2 and Cal Grant 4. These awards will cater to community college and four-year college and university students. For community college students, this means an access award to cover non-tuition costs. The state will cover tuition and fees for students at four-year universities, encouraging institutions to use their aid to cover basic needs.
Finally, AB 1456 aligns state and federal policies; including acknowledgement our Cal Grant program is supplemental to the federal Pell Grant. Last December, Congress passed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Simplification Act, which modified the eligibility formula and eliminated several questions from the FAFSA that provide information required by state law for determination of Cal Grant eligibility. California cannot ignore these changes.
We are confident AB 1456 is the most logical solution. Given that an additional 279,000 community college students and 40,000 additional students attending four-year public universities would be eligible, it is common sense for California’s higher education segments and the Newsom administration to support this effort.
This year, we must enact Cal Grant reform and achieve debt-free college. We cannot wait for another budget windfall. We cannot wait for the federal requirements to take effect. We cannot let more students struggle to access basic needs, or choose between work and school. The state must do this now.
For the sake of California students, we urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign AB 1456.