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At the end of this summer, the current pause on student loan payments will expire. This has once again forced the Biden administration to seriously consider student loan forgiveness to relieve college graduates with mounting debt. The issue has remained a rallying cry for activists who continue to urge President Joe Biden to enact some form of student loan cancellation before the upcoming midterm election. Recently, Biden has said we should expect a debt-relief plan soon.
While loan payment forgiveness is certainly a step in assisting those who have experienced increased financial difficulties since the beginning of the pandemic, in California, we can prevent students from going into debt by reforming the Cal Grant program, the state’s main financial aid system.
Right now, California legislators have the ability to make college more affordable with Assembly Bill 1746, also known as the Cal Grant Equity Framework. AB 1746, authored by Assemblymembers Jose Medina, Kevin McCarty, and state Sen. Connie Leyva, will reform and modernize the Cal Grant program by expanding access to more community college students and making California’s state-funded financial aid system more equitable.
The current Cal Grant program creates artificial barriers for community college students to qualify for financial aid, which in turn affects both student access and success. Even though community college students make up roughly two-thirds of the post-secondary education students in California, they receive fewer than one-third of the total Cal Grant awards and less than 10% of the funding. The lack of investment in our students has resulted in a financial aid system that leaves many low-income community college students without the support they need to reach their education goals.
This is because the state’s financial aid system is primarily focused on tuition and does not adequately factor in the total cost of attendance. Although, community college tuition is relatively low in comparison to the California State University or University of California systems, California Community College students struggle to pay rent, purchase food, get to class, and in many cases, support their families. One thing that makes our students different is that many are student-parents. These students are often forced to work more and take fewer classes, ultimately impacting their ability to be successful in the classroom. This bill aims to address the total cost of attendance by simplifying the various Cal Grant programs and expanding student eligibility. The extension of the application deadline and elimination of current GPA requirements and age cap means that returning and nontraditional students will have greater access to financial aid.
Under AB 1746, 109,000 more California Community College students will have access to a Cal Grant, a 60% increase from the current number of eligible students. In addition, 38,000 more student-parents will be eligible for Cal Grant and roughly 2,400 more California Dream Act students will be eligible.
We are believers in the California Community Colleges and their steadfast commitment to access and serving anyone looking to receive an education and job training because of our own life experiences. As students, neither of us had the financial means to pay for all the costs associated with attending college. Without financial assistance, and given life’s demands, our degree attainment would have been arduous or not possible at all.
In our leadership roles — as a chancellor of North Orange Community College District and as a trustee board member at Cerritos College — we interact with students, hear their stories and understand firsthand the urgent need to expand the Cal Grant to provide critical resources for students to assist with their total cost of education.
Now more than ever, our students need more opportunities for financial aid, particularly at a time when enrollment has dropped significantly due to the pandemic and daily living expenses have continued to increase. As a major access point to our state’s workforce pipeline for individuals from a variety of diverse backgrounds, experiences and challenges, California’s community colleges are a principal driver to the success of California’s economy.
It is critical that the Legislature approves AB 1746 by the end of this summer, and that Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the bill to support students across the state. By modernizing and expanding student access to the Cal Grant, we can better support community college students, fill in the gaps and shortfalls of the current financial aid system, and better serve those who need aid the most.
Byron D. Clift Breland is president of the Chief Executive Officers of the California Community Colleges board and chancellor of the North Orange County Community College District.
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