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You No Longer Have To Be An Atypical Community College Student To Get State Financial Aid

A group of young adults of various races waits in line under a white canopy outdoors on Los Angeles City College's campus. They are waiting to speak to a seated man working on an open laptop.
Students wait in line to take care of beginning of semester tasks at Los Angeles City College.
(Courtesy Los Angeles City College)
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Some 99,000 additional California community college students are getting financial aid this year thanks to an expansion of the state's Cal Grants, the California Student Aid Commission reported Monday.

The state budget passed earlier this year eliminated a requirement that students be recent high school graduates to be entitled to a Cal Grant. Previously, older students who met GPA and income requirements could apply, but had to compete for a limited number of grants. Nearly three-quarters of community college students are over the age of 20.

Up until now, just one out of every eight eligible students got one of those grants, according to Marlene Garcia, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission.

"These changes essentially make all these students now eligible for the new community college entitlement program," Garcia said.

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At L.A. City College, for example, well over twice as many students will get Cal Grants this year because of the expansion, Garcia said. "We're expecting they'll have money in hand middle of next week right before Thanksgiving."

The grant, which is intended to help pay for a student's basic needs, is for $1,648. Many low-income students who qualify for one of these grants also qualify for a California College Promise Grant, which waives fees at community colleges, and a Federal Pell Grant, which is worth up to $6,495 annually.

A Long-Awaited Change

L.A. City College student Janel Blessing, 34, had applied for a Cal Grant last year and was frustrated that she didn't get one. On Monday, she found out she was getting the award for the 2021-22 school year.

"I kind of feel like, well finally," she said. "Because I have a 4.0, I've always had a 4.0 GPA. I'm a first-generation college student. I have low income. I lost my job because of the pandemic."

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Blessing, who also qualified for a Pell Grant and the fee waiver, said she's glad she decided to go back to school in California.

"There's very few other places in America where you can go back to school and have it be completely paid for," she said. "Because my tuition is covered [by the fee waiver], that money [from the Cal Grant] just gets deposited to me and I can use it on living expenses, application fees, course materials, textbooks."

Blessing said she'll put the money away for her next step — transferring to a four-year university, which she plans to do next year.

Full Cal Grant Reform Still Pending

Cal Grant limits on age and time out of high school only apply to community college students. Gov. Gavin Newsom declined to sign a bill that would have removed those limits for students seeking grants for four-year colleges and universities.

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Garcia said she hopes the measure, which is part of the California Student Aid Commission's modernization plan, will be reintroduced this year, likely as part of state budget negotiations. "There's a lot of interest in reintroducing the concept," Garcia said.

The commission aims to eventually have a single Cal Grant program for community college students and a single program for four-year university students, in place of the mishmash of competitive and entitlement grants currently offered.

"It's a program that's evolved over 60 years," Garcia said. "It's all been additive. And we've never taken a comprehensive look at figuring out, 'Does this make sense for students and families, or even administrators?'"

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