(Photo courtesy of Office of the Governor)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to generously bolster state financial aid to California college students who are parents of dependent children — one of the most important pieces of his higher education plan — is facing strong opposition in the state Legislature.

The governor’s plan would have cost an estimated $96.7 million a year and provided student parents at state universities and community colleges up to $6,000 extra a year for living costs, books and child care on top of their regular tuition grants. About 29,000 students who are parents of dependent children could have received that extra help, according to Newsom’s proposal.

In his original budget presentation in January, Newsom described his proposal in the context of his other initiatives to expand early education and help working families. College students with dependent children, he said, “deserve a little relief, because they’re doing everything.” Later, he said of the proposed new aid: “I’m really excited about this. It’s a significant cost, but I think it’s the right thing to do.”

However, key legislative committees in both the Assembly and Senate recently stripped Newsom’s plan from the emerging state budget. Opponents said the proposal appeared to be too complicated to administer and was a well-meaning but badly designed attempt to get more parents to finish their college degrees.

Legislators and their staffers said the plan would have mainly helped a small segment of low- and middle-income student-parents — those lucky enough to already receive state Cal Grants for tuition. It would not have fixed the more fundamental problem of how difficult it is to get one of those Cal Grants if a student doesn’t start college soon after high school or, in the case of someone who transfers from a community college to a university, is 28 or older.

Rather than subsidize living costs for some parents, the number of tuition Cal Grants for all those older students, parents or not, should be vastly increased, they say.

Several experienced analysts said they thought it was unlikely the Newsom plan could be revived in the month of negotiations and votes before a final state budget is approved.  But the Newsom administration is determined to keep the idea alive, according to H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

“While we recognize the actions that have been taken to date, the administration is still very much committed to its proposal to provide Cal Grant access awards for student parents, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to secure this through negotiations with the Legislature,” Palmer told EdSource in an email.

The proposed aid for parents reflects the governor’s commitment to “a two-generation strategy, focusing on an investment in student parents so they in turn will be able to invest more in their children. As earning a bachelor’s degree is a recognized path to a better-paying job after graduation, easing the additional financial pressures that student parents face can help them complete college and focus on building a successful future — not only for themselves but for their children as well,” Palmer said.

Nevertheless, budget committees in both the Assembly and Senate recently removed the so-called parental access awards from their versions of the overall 2019-20 spending plans.  Earlier, influential opposition to the parental aid came from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office and the California Student Aid Commission, which administers Cal Grants.

“The proposal further complicates the Cal Grant program by creating another set of criteria that only benefits a small percentage of needy students,” said a staff report by the Assembly budget staff. Thousands of low-income student parents would not benefit because they would need to have a Cal Grant already in hand to receive the extra living costs funds but most are unable to land Cal Grants in the first place, the legislative staff noted.

Analysts have long complained that the Cal Grant system is too complicated and discriminates against non-traditional and older students who don’t start college until years after high school.

If students with financial need have good enough grades and start college within a year of graduating high school, they are entitled to a Cal Grant that can pay the full tuition at the ten-campus University of California and the 23-campus California State University, part of tuition at private colleges and some education costs at community colleges. Students who transfer directly from a community college to a four-year school and are younger than 28 also can receive those grants.  There are no statewide limits on the number of any of those so-called “entitlement” Cal Grants.

In contrast, students who start college at an older age usually have to compete for a different and much more limited type of Cal grant. And the odds are against them. The state now funds only 25,750 new “competitive” grants each year and more than 250,000 eligible students applied for them.

About 32,000 students with a dependent child received Cal Grants in 2017-18, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. However the same report estimated that about 44,000 otherwise eligible student parents did not receive Cal Grant because of the limits on the number of the competitive ones. (They could still be eligible for federal or campus-based aid.)

In another part of his higher education plans, Newsom has proposed increasing the number of so-called competitive Cal Grants for those older students by 4,250. Legislators are pushing for dramatically bigger increases, using the funds that would have gone for parents’ living costs. The state Assembly is advocating for 44,250 more competitive Cal Grants. Other proposals would lift the age limit on grants for transfer students.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, recently spoke of all those issues at a hearing of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance which he chairs. “We appreciate the governor’s effort to talk about the needs of college students who are also parents,” he said. But while omitting the governor’s proposal, McCarty said he wanted that large boost in the number of competitive grants and emphasized that student parents should receive some extra points in the scoring that decides who will receive those grants. Details remain to be worked out. Family income and parents’ education levels are among factors in the scoring now.

The governor’s proposal for this new aid category was “a good acknowledgment” that student parents are often an overlooked college population and face education barriers  because of child care expenses, said Ria Sengupta Bhatt, who is interim executive director of California Competes, an organization that advocates policies to help more people earn college degrees. But the alternative of expanding the number of competitive grants would help some student parents, even if they are not guaranteed any, she said.

“There are different ways to get at the same problems,” she added.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Larry Gordon