In summary

California has increased awards to up $6,000 for UC, Cal State and community college students with children, but delays and funding limitations are making it clear that for “nontraditional” students, more must be done.

Like most college students, Bianca Rojas has a lot to balance — classes, papers, exams, research. Unlike most of her peers, though, the 25-year-old Cal State Long Beach sociology major also has two extracurricular obligations: Jasper and Adeline, her toddlers.

Each semester, she said, she carefully budgets her financial aid, calculating the credits she can afford, given the needs of her family. It’s stressful: Last semester, she and her partner, a student at Cal Poly Pomona, had to take turns skipping classes, if necessary, to tend the children.

“I had to seek counseling because I was just overwhelmed,” Rojas said. “It was a really difficult time because it was just not enough resources available. You find out too late, like, ‘Oh there’s not going to be childcare for you at this time.’ It’s like then what do you do? Not go to school?”

Students with children “are increasingly becoming the norm,” said David O’Brien of the California Student Aid Commission, which administers Cal Grants.

Students such as Rojas were who Gov. Gavin Newsom had in mind this year when he injected millions of dollars into the state higher education budget to increase financial aid for young parents attending the University of California, California State University and the California Community Colleges. 

More than 300,000 California students are supported by the state’s main financial aid program, known as Cal Grant; last year, about 32,000 of them were also parents. Newsom’s budget, among other things, increased awards to up $6,000 for UC, Cal State and community college students with children, promising “real relief to our parents who are getting an education at the same time.”

But high demand and administrative delays have slowed that relief, and made it clear that more work remains to improve state aid for so-called “nontraditional” students. Those students — who are completing degrees later in life as opposed to right after high school — have become a policy focus as California seeks to boost college graduation rates amid a projected shortfall by 2030 of 1.1 million bachelors-degree-holding workers.

Students with children “are increasingly becoming the norm,” said David O’Brien, director of government affairs for the California Student Aid Commission, which administers Cal Grants.

“It’s why the Student Aid Commission is at the forefront of an effort to modernize California financial aid to better serve the needs of the student of today as opposed to what was the traditional student of 30 or 40 years ago.”

Bianca Rojas and her partner Jose Yat with their children Adeline, 2, and Jasper, 18 months. They are both enrolled full-time as college students, Jose at Cal Poly Pomona and Bianca at Cal State Long Beach and after a long day at school trying to get the kids fed and bathed and ready for bed. Jose says he tries to get his schoolwork done during breaks at school during the day. He is too tired to do any schoolwork after the kids get to bed. Their day starts around 6am as they get ready for school and to drop their kids at daycare on the way to school. They live in the renovated garage behind Jose's parents home in South Gate.
Bianca Rojas and her partner Jose Yat, part of a growing cohort of ‘nontraditional’ college students, get their two toddlers fed, bathed and ready for bed. Photo for CalMatters by Iris Schneider

So far this year, room for improvement has revealed itself in at least two areas of that effort. For one, the allocation of the additional grant money is structured in a way that still makes it hard for students with children to qualify. The state guarantees Cal Grants for eligible students attending college right out of high school, but aid for nontraditional students comes out of a more limited grant pool for which applicants must compete, and most students with children fall into that nontraditional group.  

In the 2017-18 budget year, only 25,750 competitive grants were available for the more than 340,000 qualified applicants, according to a report by the California Budget and Policy Center. Newsom’s appropriation this year increased the number of competitive grants to 41,000, but the demand still exceeded 300,000 — meaning the new money for nontraditional students is still comparatively hard to get. 

The grant money for parents has also been delayed by procedural glitches, according to state officials.

“We hope to have the initial round of grants distributed by this November or December,” O’Brien said. “That’s just sort of a slight delay due to the rollout of the new program, the programming of the awards into our legacy system, which we’re in the process of upgrading.”

Students have already received their standard grant awards and if they qualify, they will also get the first portion of the increased access award when the Student Aid Commission rolls it out. After this semester, the awards will be disbursed along with the regular schedule of Cal Grants and other aid the commission administers, O’Brien said.

I’m happy to hear that, finally, someone thought about us ‘cause I feel like we’re kind of just in the corner.”

— Bianca Rojas, Cal state Long Beach student and mother of two

Rojas said that while it’s great that the money will be available to student-parents during the holidays, a time she says can be stressful financially, getting it earlier would have been even more beneficial.

“It could’ve been helpful if we had it from the beginning — that way people would feel a little bit more relaxed with how we are going to be able to budget to complete school,” Rojas said, noting that finances at the start of a semester often determine how many units a student takes.  

“If there’s actually aid that could help you get through a whole semester full-time without having to work, that’s golden,” she said. “But if not, then you’re over here thinking ‘I’m going to take less units, so it’s going to delay graduation.’ It’s like a domino effect.”

Transferring to CSULB from Cerritos College last semester wasn’t easy, said Rojas, but she did it because she wants to continue taking care of her family and believes getting her four-year degree will help. She and her partner Jose Yat, who live in a garage apartment behind his parents’ home in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate,  had to take out loans for the first time while going to school this year. Yat also decided to stop working to make time to finish school and help care for 1-year-old Jasper and 2-year-old Adeline.

They eventually were able to get childcare off-campus this semester, but Rojas said she wished she’d known more about available resources for student-parents. She said she did not know about the increase in aid, and neither did the students she knew at CSULB and Cerritos College.

“I just feel like there’s not enough information of what else they can provide for student-parents,” Rojas said. “It’s just kinda like go through CalWORKS, get on welfare, go through all that… I appreciate that but what about scholarships for us? What about additional financial aid? I’m happy to hear that, finally, someone thought about us ‘cause I feel like we’re kind of just in the corner.”

Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, seconds the need for more outreach. Last April, the foundation released a report recommending sweeping changes in the state’s financial aid system, including better communication and less complexity.

Shireman, whose focus is education policy, says the amount of assistance needs to be gradually ramped up, too, to about $2 billion per year in grant aid for low-income students.  

“We are hoping and working to encourage a budget next year that has a much larger increase in investment in Cal Grants to address the gaps that we’re seeing,” he said. “First of low-income parents, but also other low income students as well.”

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Adria wrote for CalMatters while she was a senior at Sacramento State University majoring in journalism. She wrote and served as co-news editor for The State Hornet and freelanced for The Sacramento Bee....