California’s financial aid system could get its biggest overhaul in 20 years if a proposal backed by key Assembly Democrats becomes law. And that’s just one of a slew of college affordability bills in play this legislative session.

Call it ‘The Year of the Struggling Student’: Concern about the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student debt, a wave of studies documenting homelessness and food insecurity on California campuses, and the recent college admissions scandal have all focused lawmakers’ attention on whom the state’s higher education system is serving—and who’s falling through the cracks.

“Students throughout the state were talking about how drastic their situation was,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, recalling a series of hearings last year on the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education. Students waited in long lines to testify about sleeping in their cars or packing 10 people into a two-bedroom apartment.

Now the Riverside Democrat is co-authoring AB 1314, which would replace the existing, labyrinthine Cal Grant system with a single grant based on the total cost of attendance and a student’s ability to pay. (The state currently awards multiple scholarships for students to attend  public and private colleges, with aid largely based on the price of tuition.) While the bill doesn’t specify a price tag, co-author Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, Democrat from Sacramento, estimates it could cost up to $2 billion—doubling the amount California currently spends on financial aid.

An equally ambitious plan sponsored by Chino Democratic Sen.  Connie Leyva, SB 291, would give community college students more money for living expenses. Advocates argue that community college students suffer most when aid is pegged to tuition prices alone, since their fees of $46 per credit unit are relatively low.

The two major financial aid bills count on powerful support: Medina chairs the Assembly’s higher education committee, McCarty the budget subcommittee focusing on education, and Leyva the Senate’s education committee.

But they must also compete with other priorities such as combating California’s worsening wildfires and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pledge to expand early childhood education. Newsom, who often spoke of college affordability on the campaign trail, barely mentioned it when introducing his proposed 2019-2020 budget in January. His budget did include an increase in financial aid for student parents, plus $40 million towards providing a second year of free community college for full-time students, and $15 million each for the University of California and California State University to combat hunger and homelessness.

Other legislation includes more modest ideas such as requiring campuses to keep parking lots open at night so homeless students can sleep there.

CALmatters is teaming up with student journalists to track some of the most important bills’ progress through the Legislature:

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Felicia MelloCollege Journalism Network Editor

Felicia Mello edits CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher education from the ground up. Her reporting on affordability, equity...