Cal Grant Modernization and the True Cost of College
In March 2020, as colleges were suddenly shifted to fully remote instruction and services as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the California Student Aid Commission  put out a report recommending significant and beneficial changes to the Cal Grant system for California community college students. The report Cal Grant Modernization: A Vision for the Future (California Student Aid Commission, 2020) proposes to be a student-centered framework for modernizing financial aid. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the report received less attention than it otherwise might have in better years. On February 19, 2021, Assembly Bill 1456 (Medina, 2021) was introduced into the current legislative cycle. The bill includes proposed changes to Cal Grants that reflect many of the recommendations in the Student Aid Commission’s report but that do not include increasing access awards for community college students to the extent recommended in the report.
The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated many things, one of which is that tuition and fees are just the beginning of the true cost of college for community college students. Through the guided pathways framework, the importance of holistic student support, inside and outside the classroom, has become clear. California’s financial aid system needs to focus on supporting the true cost of college, which includes more than just tuition and fees but also other expenses such as textbooks, food, housing, transportation, computers or tablets, and access to high-speed internet.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES WITH THE CURRENT CAL GRANT SYSTEM?
As the Student Aid Commission’s report states, “Cal Grant was designed six decades ago and no longer meets the needs of the state’s growing number of struggling college students.” Their conclusion is that the current system is a barrier to “advancing affordability and providing a pathway to success.” Currently community college students are disadvantaged in that they are only eligible for a fraction—$1,672—of the $6.000 Access Award funding that four-year students are eligible to receive. Access Awards are designed to support expenses beyond tuition and fees. This current system perpetuates inequalities to college access and success. Other parts of the Cal Grant system have disadvantaged community college students as well, including financial aid deadlines and grade point average (GPA) requirements. GPA verification disadvantages many community college students who are not direct matriculants from high schools. The application deadline of March 2 also impacts students who take advantage of the rolling admissions opportunities at community colleges.
WHY DO STUDENTS NEED CAL GRANT MODERNIZATION?
The Student Aid Commission Report was influenced by the commission’s 2018-2019 Student Expenses and Resources Survey, or SEARS (California Student Aid Commission, 2019). The tri-annual report details that student loan debt in California has ballooned to $133 million, double the previous amount, in the past ten years. The SEARS report found that many students do not have the financial means to cover the full cost of attendance, and they do not have access to sufficient financial aid. The cost of attendance “is more than just tuition and fees.” According to the Student Aid Commission, the average cost for a full-time student at a California community college is $18,200 when one considers food, housing, transportation, textbooks, materials and fees. Even with financial aid, the average community college student has $9,233 of unmet need (California Student Aid Commission, 2019). When students were asked what the greatest obstacle to succeeding in college is, 64% of students chose either the “cost of college” or “balancing school and work priorities.” The SEARS survey also found that one in three students reported food and housing insecurity, and this issue was especially acute for black and Hispanic students (California Student Aid Commission, 2019).
HOW DOES THE PROPOSAL SUPPORT CALIFORNIA COMMUNITY COLLEGE STUDENTS?
The Student Aid Commission proposal remodels the Cal Grant A, B and C programs into Cal Grant/2 aimed at community college students and Cal Grant/4 for four-year students and provides the Access Award for student costs beyond tuition and fees. With this proposal, the new Cal Grant/2 program would guarantee Access Awards for up to $6,000—up from $1,672
—and increase the number of awards from 123,260 to 430,000 per year. The proposal suggests the following mechanisms to address goals identified by the Student Aid Commission (California Student Aid Commission, 2019):
- Eliminating the GPA verification for community college students, which supports non- traditional students who do not enroll directly from high school. The commission currently denies an average of 165,000 students per year because they cannot verify their GPA.
- Extending the Application Deadline to September 2, which aligns better with the open enrollment and application period for community colleges. On average, 182,000 students are denied benefits because they do not apply by the March 2 deadline.
The proposal does not offer any changes to tuition and fee support but focuses on non-tuition aid for students. Though the proposal does not include provisions to increase the number of per-student awards to include summer terms, as groups such as the Fix Financial Aid Coalition have advocated, the report states, “Summer Cal Grant eligibility is a critical component to enhancing financial aid to help students graduate in four years.”
LEGISLATION INTRODUCED AS OF FEBRUARY 19, 2021
Assembly Bill 1456 (Medina, 2021)  on Cal Grant reform was introduced in February of 2021. The bill is authored by Assemblymembers Jose Medina and Kevin McCarty and Senator Connie Leyva, who, along with other advocates, called for the California Student Aid Commission to form the Cal Grant Reform Workgroup. It supports a number of the recommendations in the Student Aid Commission report, including the GPA elimination for two-year students and the extension of the application deadline to September. Unfortunately, it does not equitize the access awards for community college students, although it does allow increases when the total cost of attendance is annually adjusted by the commission. As of February 19, the bill states, “A Cal Grant 2 award shall include an access award, covering nontuition expenses, of one thousand two hundred fifty dollars ($1,250) in the first award year” with provisions for possible future adjustment based on the California Consumer Price Index. This figure appears to fall short of the “up to $6,000 for highest need community college students” in the commission’s proposal. The conversation on how to fully support students with the true cost of college is at hand. The current proposal is to phase in the reforms, so the work needs to start now. Student needs continue to grow.
WHAT CAN FACULTY DO TO SUPPORT CAL GRANT MODERNIZATION?
Although student financial aid is not directly stated as an academic and professional matter under Title 5 §53200, students who cannot meet their basic needs face an almost insurmountable barrier to a successful college experience. The ASCCC has conveyed to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office its ongoing support for expanding financial aid and “support for the expansion of Cal Grant eligibility to more low-income students and an increase to award amounts based on the total cost of attendance” in 2019 (Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, 2019) and adopted Resolution 6.01 S16: Support Legislation to Increase Cal Grant Awards  in 2016. This call to support Cal Grant modernization aligns with the ASCCC Executive Committee’s 2020-2021 legislative priority “In Support of Students: Financial Aid Reform and Basic Needs Funding” (Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, 2020, September 17) and aligns with the ASCCC 2020-2021 Executive Committee areas of focus on equity-driven systems and culturally-responsive student services, student support, and curriculum (Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, 2020, June 17).
Faculty can advocate for Cal Grant modernization to support student needs outside of the classroom in order to help meet student needs inside the classroom. Interested faculty can read the commission report and the SEARS data and share them with colleagues. They can also meet with their local student associations or governance bodies to discuss the role faculty can play to support student efforts.
Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. (2019). Support on Expansion of Cal Grants. Letter of Support. https://asccc.org/sites/default/files/Cal%20Grant%20Letter%20of%20Suppor...
Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. (2020, September 17). Executive Committee Meeting Minutes. https://asccc.org/sites/default/files/Final%20September%2017-19%2C%20202...
Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. (2020, June 17). Executive Committee Meeting Agenda. https://asccc.org/sites/default/files/June%2017%20Executive%20Committee%...
California Student Aid Commission. (2019). 2018-2019 Student Expenses and Resources Survey: Initial Insights. https://www.csac.ca.gov/sites/main/files/file-attachments/2018-19_studen...
California Student Aid Commission. (2020). Cal Grant Modernization: A Vision for the Future.
1. Information on the California Student Aid Commission can be found at https://www.csac.ca.gov/
2. The text of AB 1456 is available on the California Legislative Information website at https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=202....
3. Full text of the resolution can be found at https://asccc.org/resolutions/support-legislation-increase-cal-grant-awards
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