Proposed California Senate bill to extend Cal Grant to incarcerated students

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A bill introduced in the California State Senate on Feb. 22, which proposes extending the availability of Cal Grant funds to incarcerated students, was set aside by the Appropriations Committee on Monday, and may be heard at a later hearing.

Senate Bill 575 was introduced by Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, on Feb. 22 and would amend the current Cal Grant Program — which administers financial aid programs for students attending public and private universities, colleges and vocational schools in California — to allow incarcerated students to be considered eligible to receive the Cal Grant award.

Aminah Elster, a student leader with Berkeley Underground Scholars, has provided expert testimony in support of SB 575, according to Berkeley Underground Scholars Director Azadeh Zohrabi.

“One of the large barriers to higher education for incarcerated students (is that) they don’t have access to the funding,” Elster said. “More folks would be able to access a better future and education.”

Elster said that she took college courses while in prison, adding that they helped her get on a path to receive a higher level of education. She has since enrolled at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate student. She added that numerous colleges and organizations have voiced their support for SB 575.

Elster noted that the number of people that could benefit from the bill is “great,” citing California’s large incarcerated population. She added that the bill could help increase diversity in California’s universities.

“The money would come from the state’s general fund,” Elster said.

The Senate Committee on Education bill analysis cited a report by Corrections to College California that face-to-face community college enrollment inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation rose from zero in 2014 to 4,443 students in the fall of 2017. The bill analysis also noted that the UC system has on-campus support programs for formerly incarcerated students.

According to the analysis, incarcerated students are eligible for federal financial aid under the Second Chance Pell pilot program. In order to qualify, however, students must be “eligible for release into the community and must be able to complete their program post release.” The bill analysis states that SB 575 may allow individuals ineligible for release access to the Cal Grant Program.

Kevin McCarthy, who was admitted to UC Berkeley and allowed to defer his enrollment to 2020, noted in a letter the opportunities that SB 575 could open.

“Many incarcerated students are stuck idle in their educational path due to their lack of access to funding for higher education,” McCarthy said in the letter. “It is exciting to think about the contributions that many incarcerated men and women could make to their communities, if they parole with a Bachelor’s Degree.”

Contact Leon Chen at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @leonwchen.