In summary

A comprehensive proposal to reform the Cal Grant program addresses the racial disparities in the current financial aid system.

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By Guillermo Mayer

Guillermo Mayer is the president and CEO of Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit civil rights law firm, gmayer@publicadvocates.org.

Christopher J. Nellum, Special to CalMatters

Christopher J. Nellum is interim executive director at The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit focused on educational justice, cnellum@edtrustwest.org.

California’s 50-year-old Cal Grant financial aid program does not work for our students or our state, and leaders know it.

As a legislative proposal to simplify the program gains momentum, many choice words have been leveled lately at the current construct:

Assemblymember Jose Medina, a Democrat from Riverside, called the Cal Grant modernization proposal Assembly Bill 1456 he introduced in February a “ticket to a better life” while the current program is “an unjust system.”

Assemblymember and co-author Kevin McCarty, a Democrat from Sacramento, called the current program “unfair and out of date” and the proposal “transformational for higher education in California.”

Audrey Dow with the not-for-profit Campaign for College Opportunity called the system plainly “racist” and the reform proposal “an antiracist policy that moves us toward equity for better outcomes.”

Today’s Cal Grant program can be called many things – including the largest and most generous in the nation – but the system in its current form is overly complex, does not align with the federal program, is not set up with a focus on equity and is absolutely essential for California’s economic strength, especially in our COVID-19 recovery. 

California’s college students are now one of our most vulnerable populations, still reeling from COVID-19. Students lost jobs and their sources of income and many were forced to drop out of school or postpone their academic plans indefinitely. We cannot afford to fail our next generation of talented students because they did not have the resources to succeed.

No group feels this more acutely than those historically marginalized by an elitist higher education system. Simplifying the Cal Grant system is the equity issue in higher education this year.

Low-income and Black and Brown students are disproportionately left out of the financial aid system and unable to receive a Cal Grant due to inaccurate assessments of their family’s financial contributions or because the system is too complex to navigate. That’s one of the reasons the proposal is enjoying bicameral support in the Legislature with Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino, as a co-author of the proposal, along with support from vocal advocates in K-12, higher education, equity and business and economy groups.

California is entering a new phase of economic recovery from the pandemic, and we have an opportunity to address systems that keep our low-income and communities of color from achieving economic mobility. As programs like Stockton’s universal basic income pilot have shown, when communities have access to the resources they need and deserve, they will succeed.

Our state’s college students are no different. The cost of college is the biggest barrier to higher education. Those in need currently are left out or are put off by the current complexity of the Cal Grant application process, leaving awards unclaimed. The current equity framework proposal, AB 1456, will reduce these barriers and further open the doors of higher education to all.

Without higher education, our state stands to lose substantially as we recover from the pandemic. Enrollment numbers at California’s most accessible and workforce-oriented higher education system, the community colleges, have drastically dropped this year. Those students are future members of our workforce, and they need our state’s support and resources.

The state needs a blueprint for current and future investment in the Cal Grant program that prioritizes students who have historically been ineligible or unable to access aid. By streamlining and simplifying the award system, financial aid access would increase so that 280,000 more California students can receive awards.

That is progress in a truly equity-focused state.

The most comprehensive, equitable proposal on the table, the Cal Grant Equity Framework addresses the racial disparities perpetuated by California’s current financial aid system and has overwhelming support from advocates and visionaries who see the future. The governor and our state lawmakers must demonstrate their commitment on this front and get behind this solution, as well.

We must invest in systemic solutions that address the root problems. Short-term, limited fixes are simply not enough.

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Guillermo Mayer has also written about bold proposals to lay the foundation for a just recovery.

Christopher J. Nellum has also written about a data system that will help chart a pathway to educational success.

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