California Governor Jerry Brown today updated his proposed spending plan for 2013-14. As in his January plan, he proposes no policy changes to the Cal Grant program, a welcome reprieve from recent years’ cuts. We are also pleased that he is taking more time to consider how best to craft incentives that support cost-effective student success.
However, we remain concerned about the Governor’s proposal to require California community college (CCC) students who need help with college costs to fill out a federal aid application, or FAFSA.
As we’ve said previously, there are real merits to requiring FAFSA completion to receive a Board of Governor (BOG) fee waiver. The FAFSA is students’ ticket to federal aid, including Pell Grants and federal loans, as well as state Cal Grants, so why not make it the ticket to institutional BOG fee waivers, too? This would help more CCC students tap into the federal and state aid that many are currently leaving on the table.
Without a doubt, better access to all the aid they’re eligible for would enable students to take more courses per term, speeding up their time to degree and increasing their chance of ultimately earning a degree or transferring – all of which are in line with the Governor’s priorities for higher education. Improving access to aid means more students need to complete FAFSAs.
However, the reasons why CCC students leave available aid on the table generally boil down to the fact that CCC financial aid offices aren’t sufficiently equipped to help all of their students understand financial aid and file FAFSAs, which can be complicated and time-consuming to complete. Per-student funding for financial aid administration at the CCCs is just a fraction of what it is at UC or CSU, despite CCC students being just as likely as others to need aid. And systemwide financial aid staffing at the CCCs has already decreased in recent years.
Under the Governor’s proposal, resources for CCC financial aid offices would decrease even further – by millions of dollars statewide in 2014-15, when the FAFSA requirement would be implemented. That’s because financial aid administrative funding is based on how many BOG fee waivers colleges award, and the Governor presumes that the number of fee waivers awarded will drop once a FAFSA is required. Fewer fee waivers means less administrative funding, which in turn means fewer students will have support to complete the FAFSA and get fee waivers.
In summary, mandating FAFSA completion for BOG fee waivers could help meet the Governor’s goal of increasing timely completion, but without a substantial increase in the level of support for campus financial aid offices, his actual proposal may have the opposite effect.