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COMMENTARY: Governor must OK expanded Cal Grant access for struggling students

By Carmen Abigail Juan Reyes

What does a Cal Grant signify for students embarking on their college journeys? For individuals like me, it embodies an unparalleled opportunity to traverse the realms of academia and pursue aspirations that once seemed shrouded in uncertainty due to the lack of financial resources. 


Raised in a first-generation household where the prospect of higher education was esteemed but financially not realistic, attending college initially appeared impossible for me. When my parents discussed college, they explained that despite their desire for me to focus solely on my studies, it wasn’t financially feasible. My parents immigrated when they were 16 years old from a small Zapotec town in Oaxaca, Mexico. My dad works as a fry cook and my mom cleans houses; yet even with their long hours, they struggle to cover their own bills. They could only contribute about $20 every two weeks toward my education. 


Qualifying for a Cal Grant made college feel like a possibility.


Unfortunately, we know my situation is not unique. In my work in the financial aid office, where I field countless calls about Cal Grant eligibility, I have heard many students with similar predicaments voice their challenges. Many callers are desperate for assistance with steep tuition fees, housing fees and basic expenses such as food. Some students, even though their parents’ income surpasses the threshold to receive financial assistance, still struggle to afford tuition and rent and must work full time, which often results in missed classes and lower grades. There were numerous occasions where, after I had outlined the annual costs for a student, they opted to withdraw from the university due to the overwhelming expenses.


But there is a beacon of hope for countless aspiring scholars who have long grappled with financial barriers: the Cal Grant Equity Framework, California’s commitment to reforming the Cal Grant to expand access to higher education. Approved in 2022, the framework is a set of strategies to promote equal access to grants for all eligible students, regardless of background or socioeconomic status. It does so by making it easier for students and families to understand what aid they’re eligible for, reducing eligibility barriers, aiming to cover the total cost of college, and more.


But making this happen requires a dedicated push by California’s policymakers to fulfill their promise and fund the framework, communicate to students and families about this opportunity, and monitor its long-term effects.


On May 30, the Legislature included funding in the budget plan to phase in implementation of the Cal Grant Equity Framework — and thereby begin comprehensive Cal Grant reform. The Legislature’s proposal would restructure and streamline the Cal Grant program, aligning eligibility with federal standards; include a cost-of-living adjustment for the new Cal Grant 2 award that would go to community college students, and remove several barriers to access the new Cal Grant 2 and Cal Grant 4 (four-year college) award. The current 2.0 grade point average (GPA) requirement for community college students would still be in effect, but will be phased out over a four-year period. The current Students With Dependent Children grant would start at $3,000 for these newly eligible students, climbing up to $6,000 over the same four-year period as the GPA phase-out. All current Cal Grant and Students With Dependent Children recipients would see no reduction to their financial aid as they will all be grandfathered in during the Cal Grant reform phase-in period. Taken together, this proposal presents a low-cost option to begin the implementation of Cal Grant reform and expands crucial financial aid to students who need it. 


By keeping Cal Grant reform in the final state budget this year, California is on a path to opening the doors of opportunity for an additional 137,000 students once fully implemented, further extending the transformative power of higher education to communities that have historically been marginalized. Among these beneficiaries, 11,000 Black students and 95,000 Latino students stand poised to embark on their academic journeys, armed with the tools and resources necessary to thrive in an ever-evolving world.


These reforms come at a critical juncture when California students’ basic needs insecurity has reached alarming levels. While Cal Grants provide substantial assistance, it’s imperative to recognize that covering tuition alone falls short of addressing the needs of many students, who often struggle to secure housing and may lack sufficient access to food. Our universities also have a role to play by leveraging their institutional aid to cover non-tuition costs.


Embracing the principles outlined in the framework, California is taking steps toward realizing the state’s vision of an educational system that is accessible and equitable for all. By actively addressing systemic inequities and providing robust support for underserved communities, California is paving the way for a brighter, more inclusive future in which the transformative power of education is fully harnessed.


The Legislature has now made clear their commitment to putting a down payment on Cal Grant reform in the 2024-25 state budget and the final decision is in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom.


Governor, we are counting on you to approve the Legislature’s path forward for Cal Grant reform and the futures of thousands of students.


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Carmen Abigail Juan Reyes is a 3rd-year Political Science, Law and Society major at the University of California, Riverside and the UC Student Association’s Fund the UC Vice Chair for the 2023-2024 academic year.


The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author.



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