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College students at risk in budget battle

Nearly 10 years ago, I authored SB 1644 that guaranteed Cal Grant Scholarships to California’s neediest students.  Today I am very concerned that in the heat of the budget battle, California’s highly successful system of financial aid delivery and outreach to our most vulnerable students will be dismantled.

The Legislature wisely rejected Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal to eliminate the Cal Grant program and instead proposed limited cuts to the amount of the grants.  Yet California’s landmark program — that guarantees financial assistance to low-income students who worked hard to meet college admission requirements — is still very much at risk of being dismantled.   

The Governor has proposed elimination of the incredibly successful program that assists all high school students and their families in the financial aid application process.  These “fill out the application” and “cash for college” programs remove the final barrier to a college education. The state’s only independent agency whose sole purpose is to increase access to financial aid would be dismantled, and its programs placed under the control of the very administration that proposed to eliminate Cal Grants altogether.
 The Governor has proposed putting Cal Grant financial aid delivery and assistance under 350 separate higher education institutions.  This would effectively dismantle the highly successful and cost-effective partnership model that brings together volunteers, business and community organizations to the students and their families.  The Governor’s proposal would place one more burden on high schools whose counseling budgets have been slashed.  

More importantly, the Governor’s proposal would deprive tens of thousands of California students of vital information about their options for financial aid. Students would not be informed whether they are eligible for Cal Grant scholarships until they had applied and been accepted at a college or university. Students would not be notified of their financial aid packages until summer.  

Those students most in need of financial aid  are from families that are least familiar with college application processes; not knowing whether they can  afford college until very late will certainly have a chilling effect on whether they apply at all.  The policy of delayed notification is particularly misguided if one understands the unique situation of Cal Grant recipients.  This is a back-door way of making deeper cuts to the Cal Grant program and limits access to higher education when our state’s economy can least afford it.

Limiting the grant awards during this unprecedented economic downturn is the right thing to do.  Eliminating the Commission that has perfected the highly successful community partnership among high schools, private businesses and local organizations and campuses that remove the last barrier for Cal Grant students makes no sense at all and is a recipe for failure.  

The Student Aid Commission serves as the only independent, publicly accountable agency whose goal is to seek out these students and help them navigate the complex system of college and financial aid applications. Governor Schwarzenegger proposed eliminating the commission and putting its functions under his administration – the very administration that proposed eliminating Cal Grants in their entirety. While that might not publicly eliminate Cal Grants, it could and would likely lead to shutting down the efforts that have made college possible for tens of thousands of California students.

I know you are keeping a watchful eye on the final budget negotiations, and that you are aware of how last minute deals are made. Please be alert to the danger to our students should this proposal reemerge. Our state is already falling far short of the college graduates we need to produce to successfully compete. We can’t afford to put the fox in charge of the henhouse when it comes to college access for California’s neediest students.

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