Blog Post | May 1, 2020

Defining Priorities in the Time of COVID

Author: Debbie Cochrane and Laura-Szabo Kubitz

Long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, California’s college students struggled to afford a college education, challenges that led to widespread calls to reform state financial aid to help more students and bring total college costs within reach. Now, financial aid reform discussions are on hold due to the economic downturn, and students’ financial challenges are deepened by unexpected costs, lost wages, ill family members, and other casualties of the crisis. Congress acted quickly to protect students’ access to federal aid – including steps TICAS and others have asked the California legislature to mirror for state aid – and to provide $14 billion in support to colleges, half of which is earmarked for emergency financial aid for students affected by the crisis. In California alone, the emergency aid funds amount to nearly $900 million to help students cope with the crisis’ fallout. Yet many of the state’s least resourced students will be unable to able to benefit from the program, and the new dollars shortchange some of the most under-resourced colleges.

Here are a few key points for state policymakers to keep in mind in identifying how the state can best target investments to support California’s underserved college students during this unfolding crisis:

  • Undocumented students cannot access federal CARES emergency grant funds. Though the federal CARES Act does not restrict which students can receive emergency grants, guidance from the U.S. Department of Education restricts eligibility to students who are eligible for federal financial aid, effectively prohibiting undocumented students from benefitting. In light of the federal CARES guidance, both the California State University (CSU) and the University of California (UC) have committed their own resources to support their undocumented students. But they shouldn’t have to, and not all colleges can afford to. California’s public colleges enroll approximately 75,000 undocumented students, the majority of whom attend community colleges. Providing colleges with supplemental funds at the same per-student allocations as CARES across the state’s public institutions would cost approximately $20 million.
  • The CARES allocations shortchanged community colleges. Much has been written about how the formula used to distribute federal dollars among colleges advantaged some colleges over others. By weighting more heavily students who enroll full time and receive federal Pell Grants, community colleges — where part-time enrollment is the norm and applying for financial aid often isn’t – got far fewer dollars per student enrolled. Our friends at the Campaign for College Opportunity recently found that, in California, community colleges will receive less than a quarter of the per-student resources provided to UC and CSU, despite serving the majority of the state’s low-income students. To put that differential in perspective: correcting for it, to provide equal per-student CARES emergency aid allocations to California community colleges (CCC), CSU, and UC, would require giving the community colleges an additional one billion dollars.
  • The skewed CARES allocations are layered upon an already flawed state financial aid structure. Despite enrolling two-thirds of the state’s college students, California community college students receive about 10 percent of state Cal Grant dollars. Because many CCC students do not apply for aid and because Cal Grant eligibility rules are designed with traditional students in mind, just 14 percent of all California community college students apply and are eligible for a Cal Grant. Of those who do apply and are eligible, most do not receive a grant because there aren’t enough to serve all eligible students. In fact, three-quarters of Cal Grant eligible students who do not receive a Cal Grant attend community colleges. As a result, despite the Cal Grant program being the largest state grant program in the nation, Cal Grants reach only 6 percent of CCC students.

While CARES Act dollars will provide much needed relief to many students during this time of crisis, targeted state dollars can help to correct for eligibility gaps and shortfalls in the CARES Act apportionment formula. Particularly imperative is ensuring that the state’s tens of thousands of undocumented students – about nine in ten of whom do not receive a Cal Grant –have access to financial resources to help them through the crisis. Should additional resources be available, we recommend focusing them on the community college students shortchanged by both federal CARES allocations and the Cal Grant program. With these targeted, equity-focused investments, the state will help ensure that the least resourced Californians receive the support they need to ride out this pandemic and successfully earn the higher education credentials that enable themselves – and the state – to thrive.