More than $1.6 billion in emergency Covid relief is available to California community college students, but how much each student receives and when they get it hinges on the college they happen to be enrolled in.
San Joaquin Delta College in the Central Valley this spring gave $1,500 checks to about 4,000 of its lowest-income students, distributing $6 million in federal aid. This fall, the college will give out stimulus checks the same way but double the amounts.
At Cuesta College, on the state’s Central Coast, about 3,600 students of varying income levels received aid this spring. The amount of those grants were smaller than what Delta College students received — ranging from $250 to $800 based on each student’s need.
How those two colleges have distributed the Covid relief funds reflects what has emerged as a disparate pattern of how students are receiving federal Covid relief across the system’s 116 colleges, EdSource has found.
California’s community colleges have been awarded about $4 billion in federal Covid relief, the largest share of the $9.5 billion headed to California’s colleges and universities. About $1.6 billion is targeted to students, who received a total of $450 million in grants as of April 30, the most recent federal data shows. More will be distributed this fall.
While the U.S. Department of Education has said colleges must prioritize money to students with “exceptional need,” colleges still get plenty of autonomy when deciding which students qualify as having exceptional need and when to give out the aid.
San Joaquin Delta College leads the state’s community colleges in prioritizing money to students, according to an EdSource analysis of federal data. As of April 30, the student allotment that Delta College had asked for and received represented 64% of its total federal aid.
Delta College gave out as much aid as it possibly could this spring and directed that aid toward its lowest-income students — students whose families can’t contribute at all to their college costs.
Tina Lent, Delta College’s director of financial aid, said campus leaders determined that the best way to spend the money is by getting as much aid to the neediest students as fast as possible. Lent said many of those students have family members who became sick or lost work during the pandemic, making it more difficult to afford college.
“If we have the money and we have students in such desperate need, I can’t see a reason to hold on to it,” Lent said.
Cuesta College, meanwhile, has taken a different strategy. As of April 30, of the Covid aid it sought, 41% was for students, and the college had spent 27% of it.
Elizabeth Coria, Cuesta’s interim assistant superintendent, said the college intentionally wasn’t overly aggressive in giving out the majority of its student aid. She said that because of the pandemic’s unpredictability, her campus wants to ensure it will have aid available as long as possible.
“We wanted to make sure that we got enough into the students’ hands but also that we didn’t exhaust all of it, because we don’t know how long students might be in this situation,” Coria said.
The different approaches are reflected in an EdSource analysis of how much student aid and how much institutional aid each college asked for under their allotment and how much they’ve spent.
On average, the student portion of the aid received by California’s community colleges accounted for 42% of all their aid as of April 30, the most recent available data. In total, the colleges had spent 28% of that student aid portion by that date. But that number varied across the colleges, with some spending nearly all their aid and others spending less than 10%.
Flexible rules on spending Covid aid
Megan Schneider, senior director of government affairs at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, noted that every college serves a different population of students with different needs, particularly in a state as large as California. Some colleges have significant numbers of students from the lowest income brackets, while others serve more students of various income levels.
“The Education Department really wanted schools to have flexibility because no one knows your students as well as you do,” Schneider said.
It’s thus not surprising that colleges are taking various approaches, said Paul Feist, a spokesman for the chancellor’s office that oversees California’s 116 community colleges. “Colleges are well suited to determine how to best serve their students,” he added.
Schneider also said that, given the uncertainty of the pandemic, she understands why some colleges are inclined to want to preserve as much aid as they can. However, she added that her association has been advising colleges that they should get the grants to students “as quickly as possible.”
Jasmine Prasad, the vice president of legislative affairs of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said it makes sense that colleges wouldn’t all distribute their aid the same way. She said colleges in the Central Valley and colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, have different student populations with different needs.
But Prasad also encouraged administrators at the colleges to gather student input before making those decisions. “I think the colleges are suited to decide for themselves, but it’s definitely important to get that student perspective. Ultimately, the administration works for the students,” she said.
Whatever method colleges have chosen to distribute emergency aid, they expect students to spend it on necessities like school supplies, food, housing and transportation.
That’s the case for Saul Nieto, who studied theater at Cypress College in Orange County in the spring and has since transferred to Cal State Long Beach. Nieto received an $800 grant this spring, which was especially helpful because he lost his part-time job during the pandemic. He put the money toward car payments and other living expenses.
“When the $800 came in, my unemployment payments had stopped and I wasn’t receiving any source of income,” Nieto said. “So that was definitely helpful.”
No college has given out more emergency aid than Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California, a city in eastern Los Angeles County. The college spent the highest amount from its student aid portion, which at $48 million is the second-highest in the state. That stems mostly from its size. The college enrolls about 30,000 students, about half of whom are recipients of the Pell Grant, the main source of federal financial aid for low-income students. The college has been awarded $115 million total in stimulus funds.
Mt. San Antonio College distributed $17.5 million of its student money as of April 30, according to an EdSource analysis. That’s more than any community college spent by that point.
Students received grants between $400 and $900 depending on their financial need and how many courses they were enrolled in, said Audrey Yamagata-Noji, the college’s vice president of student services.
This fall, the college plans to distribute aid similarly and may also use some money to help forgive debt owed by students, such as unpaid parking fees.
Helping pay family’s rent
Prinzezz Sangco, who is pursuing a nursing degree from Mt. San Antonio College, is one of the students who received aid. After her sister, mother and grandmother became unemployed during the pandemic, her family relied on her to pay much of their household’s rent, car payments and insurance.
Sangco, 23, has spent the pandemic working full time while attending college, but even with that income, she said, she often struggled to pay those bills. She said she felt relief when she received two separate emergency grants of $700 and $400, which she put toward rent.
“My family was receiving unemployment funds, but the money they received was lower than our normal expenses and responsibilities,” she said. “So the emergency grants that I received were helpful.”
Naw Dwe, an interior design major at the college, received a $500 grant in the spring that was automatically deposited into her bank account. The money helped her afford pens and books for her interior design classes.
“It was really helpful because the supplies we use for my interior design program are paid out of pocket,” Dwe said.
Like at Mt. San Antonio College, eligible students at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita automatically received their emergency grants. That college immediately distributed $1,500 grants this spring to its students who are Pell Grant recipients.
After doling out those checks, the college still had aid left over from its second batch of stimulus relief. At that point, the college emailed all students to let them know they could apply for aid if they hadn’t yet received any.
“We said, hey, we still have money. Do you need a computer? Do you need help with rent? Do you need help in any way?” said Jasmine Ruys, the college’s vice president of student services.
After completing a separate application explaining their needs, those students also received $1,500 grants. The college plans to distribute aid using a similar system this fall.
Allowing students to apply for aid wasn’t exclusive to College of the Canyons. Others, including Pasadena City College in Los Angeles County and De Anza College in Santa Clara County, did the same.
Rob Mieso, De Anza College’s vice president of student services, said the college recognized that some students may have financial needs even if they aren’t Pell Grant recipients — in some cases because they may have not filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Students who filled out an online application at De Anza College received grants of up to $750, with the exact amount varying depending on their needs, Mieso said.
Haley Castello, a history major at Pasadena City College, received two grants worth a total of $1,000 from her college after applying for the aid this spring. Her mother lost her job during the pandemic, so Castello used the aid to help pay their household expenses.
The aid went toward a car payment and other bills, but “that money was gone in a flash because we were so behind” on bills, Castello said.
Lent, the financial aid director at Delta College, knows students at Delta College and elsewhere have been hurting during the pandemic, even with the emergency aid. That’s why she’s worked to get her college to double the amount of the emergency grants that students will receive this fall, from $1,500 to $3,000.
Lent said the $1,500 that students received in the spring was “wonderful” but added that it doesn’t necessarily last long. It may help students make ends meet for a month or two, but after that, they’re back where they started.
“It’s been a rough year and a half,” Lent said. “Students are really in need. And so if we doubled it, then it can maybe go a little further.”
EdSource data journalist Daniel J. Willis and web designer Justin Allen contributed to this story.
Bella Arnold, Briana Munoz and Taylor Helmes also contributed to this story. They were reporting fellows this spring with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps. Arnold is a sophomore at California State University, Long Beach. Munoz is a recent graduate from California State University, Los Angeles. Helmes is a recent graduate from California State University, Dominguez Hills.
To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.