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When Rodrigo Velaz was in high school, he had big dreams of going to college, but he knew one of his biggest obstacles would be the high cost. Rodrigo learned about financial aid and the steps he needed to take to apply. With little to no support from his high school, Rodrigo submitted and completed a financial aid application thinking that would be enough to start his education journey at a California State University. 

What Rodrigo didn’t know, and what most students aren’t aware of, is that financial aid is usually not enough to keep up with the high cost of college. In Rodrigo’s case, insufficient financial aid caused him to drop out, “I received a Cal Grant award and institutional aid but that was still not enough. I did not make it past the first year. I was forced to drop out. They did not allow me to come back because I owed too much and did not have enough money.” He describes the current financial aid system as “an illusion” because students are told they will have enough money in their financial aid award but that is far from the truth. Research by the National College Attainment Network finds for the average Pell grant recipient only 41% of community colleges were affordable.

The sad reality is that the road to college relies on finances. While financial aid applications open the door for students to afford college, many first-generation collegegoers and students from low-income households, like Rodrigo, are not properly informed by their high school about financial aid options or simply did not receive support with filing financial aid application. A United States Department of Education surveyfound among students who did not complete financial aid applications, 15% did not know about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and 23% did not have enough information about how to complete the form. Many students share stories like Rodrigo’s. Instead of leaving their futures up to chance, we need to build a system that guarantees access to opportunities, and support navigating them.

Access to higher education and investments in a comprehensive and equitable financial aid ecosystem must be a priority, especially as California recovers from the pandemic. This year, there are several financial aid-related proposals that can ease the burden for students like Rodrigo, and make it easier to afford and attend college:

1) Pass AB 1456 for Cal Grant Reform

While California considers enacting a proposal to ensure all high school seniors complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or a California Dream Act Application (CADAA), we also need to make certain that any new applicant is able to enter a student-centered and equitable financial aid system.

This bill will eliminate barriers to access in the Cal Grant program, such as age and length of time since high school graduation. In addition, AB 1456 recommends phasing in funding to increase students’ award amount and expanding eligibility. In the first year, 250,000 more students can be served and benefit from this reform.  By passing Cal Grant Reform (AB 1456), policymakers can make history and communicate to students that California cares about students’ postsecondary educational dreams.

2) Pass the Governor’s FAFSA/CADAA budget proposal and AB 469

The Governor’s budget proposal and Assembly Bill 469 mirror each other and work together to ensure local educational agencies (LEAs) confirm all 12th-grade students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA), the California Dream Act Application (CADAA), or opt-out of doing so. Both proposals elevate the numerous partners and collaborators who could assist LEAs, students, and parents in completing these forms. The FAFSA and CADAA open the door for financial aid options including Cal Grants, Pell Grants, the Middle Class Scholarship, work-study, student loans, institutional aid, and two tuition-free years at a community college.

3) Pass SB 737 to Modernize the California Student Opportunity and Access Program (Cal-SOAP)

Senate Bill 737 will strengthen California State Aid Commission’s financial aid outreach and assistance programs and make financial aid application completion a priority for all Cal-SOAP projects, benefiting underserved students at over 400 California middle and high school sites. It will also ensure students are educated and provided with individual support through “success coaches” so they understand the true costs of college, their financing options, and applying for financial aid.

After dropping out of the California State University, Rodrigo took a break for one year. During that time, he experienced homelessness, and lived in friends’ homes. He worked multiple jobs, secured housing and saved enough money to return to school. He just completed his first year at a California community college, is majoring in Political Science, and hopes to transfer to a University of California. There is no doubt in Rodrigo’s mind that legislators and policymakers should invest in financial aid proposals and reforms to better support students like him. “Don’t give up on us simply because we can’t afford college, instead invest in us.” He wishes California would “fund students’ education and we will work” in return, and contribute to the economy.

Rodrigo’s story is one full of hope and promise, despite a series of setbacks caused by a financial aid system that is in need of reform. Now it’s up to legislators to make sure students like Rodrigo have real opportunities for a post-secondary education. A comprehensive financial aid ecosystem will help millions of California students like Rodrigo fulfill their dreams of a college education and become a critical part of California’s thriving economy.

Denise Castro

Denise Castro

Policy Analyst

Denise Castro (she/her/hers) is a Policy Analyst at The Education Trust—West. Denise joins The Education Trust—West with experience in…

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