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Author: Don Obrien

Financial aid is complicated, the value of simplifying it is easy to understand


Larry Gordon/EdSource Today

Sacramento State students line up to pay bills and receive financial aid information.

Every fall, thousands of aspiring and continuing college students across California, particularly those from low-income communities and communities of color, grapple with the problem of how to finance a college degree.

Today’s students are put in an impossible situation. College graduates earn 80% more than those with just a high school diploma, on average. But college is more expensive than ever and need-based financial aid has not kept pace with rising costs.

In addition, the process to access and keep available aid is extremely complex. Students must choose: Do they risk going into debt they may never fully pay back, or miss out on the benefits of a college degree?

Students have few places to turn for help to complete applications, verification and additional steps to secure financial aid. Ultimately, many students will not pursue higher education because the resources needed to navigate the system are unavailable, or they think they’re not eligible for financial aid.

In a historic investment, the California Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom this year expanded financial aid through the Cal Grant, the state’s financial aid program. The changes address major barriers that prevent community college students from accessing the financial aid they need.

However, the additional funding alone is not enough; we still need to simplify pathways to financial aid for all California students.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee is considering a bill, AB 1456, that aims to address systemic barriers through its Cal Grant Equity Framework.

The proposed framework, the product of years of collaboration between students, higher ed institutions and advocates, streamlines the existing Cal Grant programs, entitlement and competitive categories by establishing the Cal Grant 2 for students at community colleges and the Cal Grant 4 for students at four-year institutions. This much-needed reform addresses the confusion and unnecessary complexities that the students we advise must navigate every year.

Additionally, the bill eliminates requirements that complicate the financial aid system for students across California’s colleges and universities. Currently, there are eligibility barriers for students seeking a Cal Grant based on their age or when they graduated from high school, depending on the higher education segment in which they are enrolled. These limitations are often barriers for students from low-income families who otherwise qualify for a Cal Grant.

The bill also leverages federal, state and campus financial aid funds to help students cover costs beyond tuition. Expenses including rent, food, transportation and textbooks add up and sometimes mean that attending a community college ends up being more expensive than attending a public four-year institution.

Comprehensive reform to California’s financial aid system must cover the total cost of pursuing a higher education. AB 1456 simplifies an overly complicated system and removes eligibility barriers that have restricted financially vulnerable students from accessing Cal Grants. It would make the system more transparent and predictable for students and families trying to pay for college, letting them know what support is available before they apply versus having to guess if they will qualify.

The Legislature should approve AB 1456. Students deserve, and California’s economy depends on, a financial aid system that creates real pathways to economic opportunity and a diverse, skilled workforce for the future.

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Jaclyn Piñero is CEO of uAspire, a national nonprofit focused on college affordability and removing the financial barriers to higher education through student advising, counselor training, and policy and systems change.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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