Lupita Cortez Alcalá took over in January this year as executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, an agency that may not be publicly well-known but is crucial to whether approximately 400,000 students receive financial aid from the state and get to go to college.
The commission administers the coveted Cal Grants – a total of $2 billion worth this year – which provide from $1,656 to $12,240 a year to eligible students, depending on their needs and where they attend school. It also runs more recently established aid programs for undocumented students and for middle-class families that earn up to $150,000 a year and don’t have assets of more than $150,000, other than their homes and retirement accounts.
The 15 members of the commission are appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature and meet seven times a year. The unsalaried commissioners are paid only small stipends per meeting.
Alcalá is a veteran of the California State Department of Education, where she was deputy superintendent of instruction and learning support and worked on such issues as English acquisition and STEM education. Born in Mexico, she moved to the San Diego area with her family at age 3; she later earned her bachelor’s degree, with the help of a Cal Grant, at UC San Diego and a master’s at Harvard’s School of Education.
Alcalá, 42, spoke recently with EdSource senior correspondent Larry Gordon about the challenges the agency faces and the needs of California high school and college students. Here is an edited version of their conversation.
To start out, what do you see as the biggest obstacles to California students getting the financial aid they need? Is it filling out the required FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form or other factors?
I think it’s getting general information to students. I’ve been surprised at the number of students I’ve met and talked to in middle schools or high schools who have never heard of how to get into college. It’s not a part of their everyday culture. I also think it’s a lack of counselors and the low ratio of counselors to students in K-12, not having those individuals who could provide them information on how to get into college and what the process is for applying for financial aid.
Is there anything the commission should do to make it easier or more efficient?
We are sponsoring 900 Cash for College workshops across the state this application season to help families fill out the FAFSA. And we are really excited about an earlier filing period next fall. Before, the FAFSA filing period (for Californians) was January to March 2. Often you were also filling out your taxes and the timing didn’t work out well. Families were rushed and anxious. But the FAFSA season will begin Oct. 1 next fall. That means we can get the information out to students earlier about their eligibility, even before the application deadlines for Cal State and UC and some private colleges. We can let students know what they will be entitled to, which may motivate more students to actually apply to college.
But aren’t a lot of families still afraid to fill out the FAFSA, even with the ways the Obama administration has tried to simplify it? Is that anxiety justified?
I think there are misconceptions from some middle-class families who think they make too much and so don’t fill it out. We want to encourage more middle-class families to fill out the FAFSA because it’s the gateway to all financial aid and we now have a program that’s geared for them. And some lower-income families don’t know how much financial aid they are entitled to and so they are generally concerned about raising expectations they won’t be able to meet, and not being able to afford college. The undocumented may be concerned about giving out personal information. We work very hard to reassure them that that information in the California Dream Act application does not go anywhere but for the purposes of figuring out financial aid.
The Middle Class Scholarship got off to a really slow start two years ago. It seemed embarrassing that a lot of allocated money is still unspoken for and left on the table. Some legislators even talked about killing the program. How do you think it’s going this year?
It really wasn’t embarrassing. It was really more telling. So many middle-class applicants already were receiving so much aid (from other sources like UC and Cal State) that they were ineligible. However, we also want middle-class families to know it is worth their while to apply by the March 2 deadline; just apply.
AB 1721 is a current bill in the state Legislature that among other things would extend the Cal Grant eligibility age from the current 28 to 31 for students who transfer from community colleges to four-year schools. Why is that important?
We saw in the last recession that hundreds of thousands of adults applied for our grants to return to school. We don’t have the same demographics anymore of people getting out of high school and going straight to college. We have a lot of students working part time and full time, who have families and are the heads of their households. So we need to change these age limits if we are going to train them for high-skills, high-wage, and high-demand jobs necessary for powering California’s economy.
Over the years, there has been talk about eliminating or reducing the Cal Grants for students at private schools in California, even nonprofits like USC, Santa Clara University or Mills College. Some people say that subsidizes private schools with taxpayer money. What do you think?
I think it would be a step backwards to try to limit or cancel any aid to private schools. It’s about choices, the student’s choices. When a student works really hard in high school and meets the eligibility for a private school, then he or she should have the choice and the financial ability to go to USC or Stanford. Some students might be more successful in a private, more personalized environment and I wouldn’t want to limit them from that opportunity…. And if the privates didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have room for all the students eligible to attend CSU and UC. We don’t currently have the room to offer a place for every single student who is eligible.
The California Dream Act provides aid to undocumented students. How do you think that is working?
We are three years into the California Dream Act and it’s going pretty well. Other states have contacted us for guidance. They are clearly looking at what California is doing. But the commission is very concerned that only 67 percent of the grants awarded last year were used. We are working with higher education institutions and students to find out why that is and how to ensure that the students who are awarded the grants enroll and take advantage of them. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal loans or Pell grants. So it may be that (even with California Dream Act grants) they don’t have enough to cover their college costs and living expenses.
Your computer system to announce and distribute awards is pretty antiquated. Is that hurting students?
During the peak season, the system will not be as responsive; it will slow down and you may not be able to get into the system until the next day. Our system is a little antiquated but we are making it work. We obviously are concerned about capacity and would like to modernize the system to meet the needs of 21st-century students. We recently received an $800,000 state appropriation to begin studying how to best update the system. We don’t know how much it will cost to fully modernize it, but we believe it’s an essential infrastructure investment for California.
How will demographic changes in California put pressure on Cal Grants and higher education?
Demographically, the majority of K-12 students in California are students of color, many of them first generation (to attend college) and low-income. So the demographics are different than in the past. These shifts are going to require more financial aid counseling and increases in Cal Grant funding. Many of these students need to work while they are in college. So institutions must meet students where they are by offering more classes in summer school, winter breaks and online to help more of them graduate on time.