The California Legislature had been set to debate whether and how to reform state financial aid to students to bring college costs within reach for low- and middle-income families.
Then the coronavirus upended nearly everything about our daily lives.
With the Legislature all but shut down, and the state budget facing shakier financial forecasts than anticipated, temporarily putting aside financial aid reform discussions is unfortunate but necessary. There are, however, steps that the California Legislature can take to protect students’ financial aid during and after this public health crisis.
Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to bolster federal financial aid access for college students affected by the coronavirus epidemic. The Legislature should do the same with respect to state and even institutional financial aid programs.
Even under the best circumstances, college is expensive. For low-income Californians, finding an affordable path to a degree too often means making choices that undermine their academic success — such as working too much or taking fewer classes — and leave them with large debts to repay. Black and Latino students are particularly likely to struggle, and more likely than others to graduate with debt.
Now, as the pandemic sweeps the state, colleges have shuttered campuses, leaving students with more questions than answers about whether and how their current academic efforts will count toward their degree. Unemployment rising at an unprecedented rate means many students are spending more time caring for family members, or helping their families pay the bills, instead of focusing on schoolwork. Those attempting to stay engaged in their courses perhaps are struggling with unreliable internet access and cramped quarters, or loss of services upon which many students rely, such as food pantries and child care.
The Legislature should consider these reforms:
Students should not face financial aid penalties if they were unable to complete their course as a result of the crisis. The state’s Cal Grant program is typically available to students for only four years, and students who withdraw from courses during the crisis may need to repay a portion of their aid. Requiring them to repay aid received during these terms, however, may harm their eligibility for financial aid and permanently damage their ability to earn a degree. The Legislature should ensure that this does not happen.
The California Student Aid Commission should be allowed to loosen requirements for the financial aid programs it administers, so that grades — or the lack of grades — from coronavirus-affected terms do not undermine students’ ability to get help paying for college. Students often have to demonstrate their academic ability and performance to both initially receive and continue to be eligible for financial aid awards. During this crisis, students’ ability to progress in their courses — or have their progress graded in the usual ways — can be out of their control.
Financial aid programs should relax requirements for continuous enrollment to ensure that students don’t permanently lose eligibility. Some programs restrict the extent to which students can take breaks during their journey toward a college degree. For example, high school students are guaranteed a Cal Grant only if they apply within a year of graduating high school, and transfer students can get one only if there is little gap between community college and university. Yet the higher education landscape for the coming year is being dramatically reshaped, and there are some indications students may pause their enrollment to wait out the pandemic, rather than enrolling in colleges or courses that they might have to take online or don’t think they can afford.
In addition to loosening federal financial aid rules, the federal CARES Act allocates billions of dollars to higher education institutions. There is $850 million for emergency financial aid at California colleges alone, which will be delivered to schools in the coming weeks.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education has said that colleges cannot use these funds to support undocumented students, despite the enormous financial challenges these students faced prior to the crisis and their additional vulnerability during it. Supplementing the CARES Act emergency aid with California funds targeted toward undocumented students would help to ensure that these students are not further disadvantaged by the pandemic.
College students are facing unprecedented uncertainty with respect to their continued education as well as the workforce they will enter. We should not pile on to these new challenges fears that their financial aid eligibility has been penalized.
Debbie Cochrane is executive vice president of The Institute for College Access & Success, a non-profit research and advocacy organization, and was a member of the California Student Aid Commission’s working group.
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