It’s time to overhaul and update the Cal Grant system

Graduation ceremonies, pre-pandemic, at Santa Monica City College. (Photo: Joseph Sohm, via Shutterstock)
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the hard way that too many Californians face barriers to opportunity. As California looks to recover, it’s time to reexamine our old institutions and programs to determine if they meet today’s needs and serve residents as intended.
One such program in need of reform is the Cal Grant system. This financial aid program has been a lifeline for millions of students over the years, providing access and educational opportunity to help Californians achieve a college degree and better their lives.
However, the decades-old program was designed to benefit a college student that does not reflect today’s reality: financially dependent students who attend in-person classes fresh out of high school.
Today, 37% of all college students across the nation are older than 25 and many of those adult learners choose the flexibility of online learning to balance their family and work responsibilities. But current state law does not allow students to access Cal Grants if they attend an online college that does not have a brick-and-mortar campus in the state.
Too many low-income Californians cannot access the Cal Grant to fund a degree at the university of their choosing.
Unfortunately, when it comes to need-based state financial aid, the Cal Grant program is leaving many adult online learners behind, simply because they’ve chosen an institution that better fits their lifestyle. While the Cal Grant program is intended to close the opportunity gap by providing educational access to those who cannot afford college, it has not updated its rules to ensure educational access is available to the adult learners who require the flexibility of online learning – regardless of where an institution is headquartered.
There is legislation pending in the State Legislature, Assembly Bill 1456 by Assemblymember Jose Medina and Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, that would amend the Cal Grant program to eliminate some barriers that have prohibited adult students from accessing the financial aid they need for college. But the bill does not break down all of the current barriers to access to higher education – namely, it keeps up the barrier to funding for many online university learners.
If amended, AB 1456 could also help low-income adult learners attend online universities regardless of whether they have a brick-and-mortar presence in the state, improving lives for thousands of hard-working Californians and their families.
For example, there are high-quality online nonprofit universities that do not have a physical presence in California but successfully educate tens of thousands of Californians every year with degrees in health care, business, IT, and teaching. In fact, one such university, Western Governors University (WGU), has made a real impact with 94% of graduates being employed and 95% of graduates saying they would choose the same university again. Just two years after graduation, WGU graduates report an average increase in annual salary of $12,300 and $21,800 within four years.
But too many low-income Californians cannot access the Cal Grant to fund a degree at the university of their choosing. For adult learners in California who work full time or hold multiple jobs, care for dependent children, are persons with disabilities, and others, the flexibility and affordability of online learning could be the key to them achieving their aspirations. In fact, research from the Strada Education Network, Gallup, and the Lumina Foundation found that among adults ages 25 to 64 with some college but no degree, the single most common reason cited for having stopped their education was difficulty balancing studies and work at the same time.
This is consistent with a study by California Competes that found that 5.1 California adults intend to enroll in higher education and nearly 4 million of them are interested in completely online instruction.
I can tell you personally that while working in my full-time job, I thought college was not an option for me. I was fortunate to be able to attend a not-for-profit online university that allowed me to learn when I had the time, and because of this program, I achieved my MBA in Healthcare Management. Because of my online university, I was able to work full time while pursuing my passion.
I want this opportunity to be available to everyone like me who thought it was impossible to have a college education due to time and cost.
It is time to reform the Cal Grant program to fit the needs of today’s adult learners. We cannot afford to allow another 50 years pass before high-quality online universities and their students are recognized.

Editor’s Note: Yessica Gomez is a Paramount resident and received her MBA in Healthcare Management from Western Governors University. 

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