As two of California’s 2.1 million community college students, we have an urgent plea to lawmakers: Fund the expansion and modernization of the state’s Cal Grant student financial aid system by enacting a framework that is more equitable for students who need it most.
The framework proposed by Assembly Bill 1456 (Media-McCarty) would finally put us on a fair path to ensuring that the promise of the California Master Plan for Higher Education of accessing and affording a higher education comes to fruition.
Before the Legislature is a proposal to make Cal Grant available as an entitlement for the more than two-thirds of California students who, like us, attend one of our state’s 116 community colleges. (Right now, most students who attend a four-year university – public or private nonprofit – qualify to receive a Cal Grant as an “entitlement,” meaning there is no limit on the number of awards the state funds every year. Most community college students, on the other hand, “compete” in a lottery-style system for a fixed number of grants available each year. This year, just 41,000 awards are available for around 300,000 eligible students.)
Like our elected leaders, we have been following the national conversation about “free” community college with great interest and continue to stress that tuition is not the greatest cost California’s community college students face.
We are grateful for the Legislature’s longstanding support for financial aid to reduce the cost of tuition in the community college system, through programs such as the California College Promise Grant fee waiver and the recently enacted California Promise program, which expanded access to fee waivers at community colleges.
Thanks to this generosity and support, about half of community college students receive financial aid to cover their full tuition. Legislators have an opportunity to take these investments to the next step, as we look to an equitable economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and recession and extend California’s guarantee of college affordability to include nontuition costs.
Increases in living costs — housing and food, most notably — have led to a well-documented crisis of “basic needs” in our community college system. Thousands of students live in severe poverty or homelessness, wondering if they can find a friend’s couch or a street corner to sleep on at night, or hoping to scrounge together enough loose change to afford their next meal. Many more struggle to balance the responsibilities of studying full time with 40 hours or more per week of working, often at minimum or very low wages, or with raising children or caring for family members of their own.
Does this sound like a formula for surviving, let alone thriving, in higher education?
Having advocated for expanding and modernizing financial aid, via the Fix Financial Aid Coalition with our fellow students at the California State University and the University of California for the past several years, we have gotten used to hearing, “How can we afford to do this?”
This year, as we consider what it means to recover from a once-in-a-century pandemic that had an unprecedented impact on low-income Californians and communities of color, we can only respond that there is no way California can not afford to do this.
There is no way we can afford not to guarantee financial aid to all students with financial need.
There is no way we can afford not to modernize, simplify and expand the state Cal Grant program, which serves over 400,000 low-income students throughout our state but only 5% of community college students.
This is truer than ever now that we have a $75 billion budget surplus. We need legislative leaders to set aside a fraction of this surplus to fund the expansion of Cal Grant eligibility and awards proposed by AB 1456. This would allow us to not only guarantee a Cal Grant to every eligible student, both in the community colleges and in our four-year partner institutions, but also to ensure that the award actually grows over time and does not lose value over the years.
The current maximum Cal Grant award would be worth more than four times what it is now if it had been adjusted to keep up with inflation over the years.
Please do not let the opportunity to expand student financial aid and meet California’s promise of affordable, accessible college pass us by.
Iulia Tarasova is a student at Sierra College and a member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. Stephen Kodur is president of the State Senate for California Community Colleges.
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