Governor Gavin Newsom will decide by October 10 whether to make financial aid more accessible to low-income students by signing Assembly Bill (AB) 1456, which reforms the California Student Aid Commission’s (CSAC) financial aid program.
If passed, the bill will increase eligibility for low-income students by making financial need — instead of GPA and age — the main point of consideration for state college grants.
The bill will specifically reform the Cal Grants program, which provides the majority of financial aid for California students.
Jessie Luxford, coordinator and founder of the Berkeley High School (BHS) Bridge Program, which assists African American, Latinx, and low-income students in their transition to college, said that AB 1456 could come with benefits for both students and adults assisting with the college admission process.
“I would hope that by simplifying [the Cal Grants system] it would be an incentive for more students to apply,” said Luxford. “With the Bridge students, we help them with every step of the process, so they would apply whether or not it was simplified. [A simplified bill] helps us to navigate that whole process, and it’s less of a headache for everyone,” he said.
Currently, there are three grant types which have complex eligibility requirements that include age, GPA, financial need and type of college. Cal Grant A provides money for tuition and fees at four year universities, Cal Grant B provides money for non-tuition costs at any college, and Cal Grant C provides financial aid for students pursuing an occupational or technical program. Only one grant may be awarded at a time.
Cal Grants A and B have financial, GPA, and age requirements to determine eligibility, and Cal Grant C has financial need requirements.
AB 1456 will simplify the current grant system and Cal Grants 2 and 4 will replace A, B, and C. For community colleges, the Cal Grant 2 program will cover non-tuition expenses and community colleges will waive tuition or fees. Financial need will determine grant eligibility; all GPA and age requirements are dropped. Cal Grant 4 will lower the GPA requirement from a 3.0 to a 2.0 and drop age restrictions.
These changes would allow Cal Grants to reach 200,000 more students. While opponents of the bill argue that the maximum grant amount may decrease as more students become eligible, Luxford said the decrease would be minimal.
However, AB 1456 will no longer cover non-tuition expenses for University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) students. The current Cal Grants program covers both tuition and fees for all four years and living expenses after freshman year, but Cal Grant 4 only covers students’ tuition and fees. The CDOF is concerned AB 1456 will pressure schools to provide aid for living expenses, and will consequently raise tuition and fees.
“[Pressuring schools to raise tuition] would be antithetical to what they’re trying to do, which is create more equity,” said Luxford.
The CDOF also opposes the bill because it would limit aid for many middle class students. However, those students could still receive aid from the middle class scholarship program, which defines the middle income as up to $184,000 per year. Up to 40 percent of tuition and expenses can be covered by this program.
“I think it’s a drawback that they have to take money from other students who need it,” said Luxford. “What is considered middle income is often not enough to survive in California. … But if [reducing middle income scholarships to help low-income students] had to be the choice, I would support the move to make college affordable for lower income students,” said Luxford.
Mendel Chernack, Universal Ninth Grade (U9) English teacher and former Achievement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher — a program that prepares students for college eligibility and success — said that Cal Grant eligibility for middle-income students is important at BHS.
“There are a lot of people at [BHS] who are middle class,” said Chernack. “Oftentimes, kids of lesser means are eligible for a lot of financial aid. The people who are really wealthy can afford [college], but the people in the middle, they’re not getting a lot of financial aid,” Chernack said.
Decreasing the GPA requirement for Cal Grants 2 and 4 will be important in making higher education more accessible to students, according to Luxford.
The minimum GPA to get into a CSU is 2.5, and the minimum GPA to get into a UC is 3, so dropping the minimum GPA to a 2.0 means that anyone who has high enough grades to get into a CSU or UC will be eligible for a Cal Grant.
“Making higher education more accessible to students is a good idea,” said Luxford. “You never know what’s going to happen when students [get to college]. They could do just fine, even if they had a challenging time in high school,” Luxford said.