One year ago, expansion of the California student financial aid program, known as "Calgrants," was being hailed as a giant step toward the goal of assuring postsecondary educational opportunity for every Californian who had the potential to benefit from education beyond high school but lacked the means to pay for it.
But the first year's results have been disappointing. Fewer students have received Calgrants for the coming academic year (2001-2002) than received them during the last year of the old program.
Under the new Calgrant Entitlement Program, high school seniors who graduate with at least a 3.0 grade point average and can demonstrate financial need, are eligible for a Calgrant A award, covering tuition and fees at a University of California or California State University campus or a grant of up to $9,708 to attend a private college or university. Calgrant B awards of $1,551 go to financially needy students who graduate with at least a 2.0 GPA.
Legislation creating the new program also required the state to budget enough money to pay for these entitlements. In the past, thousands of students who were eligible for Calgrants did not receive them because the money ran out.
Legislators from both parties supported the new program, which was supposed to more than double the number of annual new awards by the 2006-2007 academic year. National financial aid experts praised California for bucking a national trend by basing the program on need, as well as on merit. Governor Gray Davis (whose administration had worked hard to limit the bill's benefits) called it the "greatest educational opportunity for students since the G.I. Bill."
Unhappily, things have not worked out that way.
The California Student Aid Commission had projected that about 100,000 new awards would be made for 2001-2002. However, by mid-July the commission had handed out only 54,000 Calgrants, about two thirds of the total awarded under the old program the year before. Although more awards will be made in coming months, commission officials said they doubt the total will reach last year's 76,600.
Because fewer awards have been made, the Davis Administration has withdrawn $35 million from the program, which still will cost an estimated $596 million next year.
What happened? Interviews with Student Aid Commission officials, legislators and legislative staff members and campus financial aid directors identified several problems:
1) The "entitlements" are available only to graduating high school seniors. Students who already are enrolled in a postsecondary institution, or older students resuming their education after a lapse of some years, are not eligible.
"It wasn't clear that the entitlement program was only available to graduating high school seniors," said Steve Arena, assistant financial aid director at San Joaquin Delta College, in Stockton. "A lot of people thought the 'entitlement' was much broader than that."
2) All applicants who are not graduating high school seniors have to try for one of the "competitive" grants, which were limited in number to 22,500.
As of mid-July, about 10,500 competitive grants had been distributed. The rest of the 22,500 will be awarded this fall but Student Aid Commission officials said about 41,000 students who are eligible for these grants will not receive them because of the cap. This includes many older students who are enrolled, or were planning to enroll, in the state's 106 community colleges.
Legislators and staffers who are familiar with the program say the number of competitive grants should be increased to at least 40,000 but they know that will not happen this year, when the budget is tight and the state is spending billions for electricity.
"Last year was our golden opportunity," said State Senator Deborah Ortiz, who was principal author of the legislation creating the new Calgrant program. "Do I think we can get an increase in (competitive) grants this year? No."
3) Senator Ortiz said the decline in Calgrant awards was "disappointing but not surprising," because "this is really a shift to a whole new group of prospective students." Many are first-generation college students from low-income families, Ortiz said, "and they are completely unfamiliar with all the forms you have to fill out and the rest of the procedure."
"We finally peeked into the bureaucracy and found that it's huge and it's unfriendly," Ortiz added.
Sam Sandusky, dean of student services at Sacramento City College, said the federal financial aid form that Calgrant applicants must complete is "long and very complicatedÉA lot of people look at it and just don't bother, or they fill it out wrong."
4) Tight deadlines and startup problems proved to be stubborn obstacles. The legislation was not signed into law until last September, but applications began to pour in last January and the deadline for the entitlement part of the new program was March 2.
"The (Student Aid) Commission was trying to build a new program while operating the old one at the same time," said a legislative staff member who asked not to be identified. "Lots of things slipped through the cracks."
|Problems with the new California student financial aid plan do not surprise State
Senator Deborah Ortiz, who says many low-income families are unfamiliar with
Said another legislative staffer, "There's a tendency to just put programs out there real fast, without enough time for training people, outreach efforts and so forth."
5) Communication with the various segments of education, especially the high schools, was inadequate in some cases.
Wally Boeck, executive director of the Student Aid Commission, personally contacted many high school district superintendents, and commission staff members held workshops to inform high school principals and counselors about the new Calgrant procedures. Still, many high schools did not get the message and even those that did sometimes lacked enough counselors to relay the information effectively to students.
"We're in the process of putting together a much more aggressive marketing campaign" for next year, said Carole Solov, a commission spokeswoman.
Senator Ortiz held her own workshops in Sacramento, not only describing the Calgrant programs but also helping students and their families understand the rules, the forms and the deadlines. They even assisted some families with their income tax returns, since these must be filed before applications for federal financial aid can be made.
As a result of the workshops, Calgrant applications increased by 50 percent to 100 percent at some of the high schools in her legislative district, Ortiz said.
Some colleges mounted their own marketing campaigns. For instance, San Joaquin Delta College advertised the new grant programs in both English and Spanish, in print and broadcast media, as well as visiting every high school in the area. The effort paid off, as more than 600 San Joaquin Delta students have won either "entitlement" or "competitive" awards, with more winners likely to emerge during the second phase of the competitive process.
6) Opportunities for mistakes abound in the application process. Some families fail to fill out the complex federal financial aid forms correctly. Others misstate their incomes. Student Aid Commission forms present additional opportunities for errors of omission or commission. Some high schools are late in reporting student grade point averages, or don't report them at all.
For all these reasons, and no doubt others, the bright promise of the Calgrant expansion effort has not been realized. However, there is still said to be strong support for the program among both Democratic and Republican legislators and there is hope that, if and when the energy crisis abates and budget surpluses return, that promise will be kept.