Cal Grant is in desperate need of reform

Illustration of giant hands, representing financial barriers, blocking a student from going to class.
Angela Bi/Staff

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The Cal Grant is an important and powerful form of financial aid that helps thousands of California students and is a big component of educational stability. Unfortunately, the current Cal Grant program does not help enough students and desperately needs expansion and reform.

The first of the three main forms of the Cal Grant pays for tuition and fees at four-year colleges. The second provides a living allowance of up to $1,648, in addition to tuition and fee assistance after the first year at a two- or four-year college. The last provides up to $1,094 for books, tools and equipment — and up to $2,462 more for tuition and fees if you’ll be attending a school such as a year-round private technical or vocational institution.

To receive any of the Cal Grant financial aid, one must apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or CA Dream Act application by the deadline and meet the eligibility and financial requirements, as well as any minimum GPA requirements. Education and subsequent affordability are extremely important, and California residents agree, ranking it the second-most important issue for California in a 2019 poll.

As more and more people apply to college, we need programs that allow for historically marginalized, underprivileged and disenfranchised students to be able to attend college. People in these groups often feel immense pressure to apply for massive loans. While California has made some notable efforts to improve opportunities, there are still many financial obstacles that have made higher education difficult to attain. The Cal Grant meets the needs of many of these historically underprivileged communities but is difficult to apply to due to the complexity of some applications and the greater process.

What is being done about these problems and what should be done? AB 469 addresses some of these needs, requiring accountability on the part of the education system to aid in early forms of the college readiness process, which will offer financial alleviation along the way. Clarity in these applications equates to opportunity. Many argue the GPA requirement places pressure and stress on students who rely on the Cal Grant in order to attend college. While the Cal Grant is considered a need-based form of financial aid, GPA requirements act as barriers to a seemingly scholarship-esque opportunity.

Currently, if a Cal Grant recipient faces some external situation that causes them to struggle academically, they can lose benefits helping them to continue their education. From a survey of UC Berkeley students, 39% voiced they wanted the GPA requirement removed from Cal Grant eligibility, whereas about 15% chose to keep it. Of those against prompt change, 46% felt “research should be done before changing this.” California Governor Gavin Newsom seems to agree here, as in his 2021-2022 budget proposal, he requested early action to restore Cal Grant A awards for certain students who lost eligibility in 2020‑21 as a result of changes in their living arrangements. He also requested to postpone a rule that would “reduce Cal Grant award amounts at private nonprofit institutions if the sector does not admit a specified number of transfer students in 2020‑21.” Still, removing GPA requirements was the lowest priority for UC Berkeley students when polled about what the state should prioritize.

More underprivileged communities have reached a financial situation where higher education is feasible. This has meant a greater diversity of college students, who are more likely to come from lower-income communities. Many first-generation students work for many years prior to beginning higher education; over one-third being older than 25. Working prior to entering college seems to present many benefits, and counters the worrying 2017 data from the ACT Center for Equity in Learning, which suggests low-income students who work more than 15 hours per week have lower grade point averages, and that they less frequently graduate in six years or fewer than their nonworking, non-low-income counterparts. For this reason, those who work prior to entering college should not be penalized, nor punished, for making a wise financial decision. They should not have to seek out competitive Cal Grants. This is backward and unhelpful.

California relies heavily on a well-trained and educated workforce, and this workforce is largely trained at its public institutions. As funding for programs such as the Cal Grant have dwindled, we have lost some of that workforce. The solution is to expand and improve the Cal Grant. Job shortages and massive student debt could be tackled in one swift move, and would arguably increase new high school graduates’ financial longevity well beyond college. Removing the last remaining barriers to the Cal Grant program — time out of high school for those attending four-year institutions, as well as the GPA requirement for community college students — will not only keep the promise to these potential students but also help the state respond to a changing state and world economy.

Nick Grosh is a first-year urban studies student at UC Berkeley and Andrew Neciuk is a domestic and international policy studies student at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.