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California bill seeks to help college students suffering from pandemic’s impact

Commentary

Cynthia Murray is president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council. David Rattray is president and CEO of UNITE-LA.

Access to higher education provides students in California with many socioeconomic benefits and strengthens our state's global competitiveness.

But as we continue working our way past the COVID-19 pandemic, many students face hardships that put their degree or certificate completion at risk. The Cal Grant Equity Framework proposal (Assembly Bill 1456) being considered in Sacramento would help address the dire basic needs crisis our college students currently are experiencing.

In a clear example of the pandemic’s impact on college attendance across the state, almost five million Californians, many of whom do not hold post secondary degrees, have found themselves unemployed at some point since the beginning of the pandemic. Even more concerning — California’s community colleges have declined an average of 11% to 12% systemwide. This is far greater than the initial estimates of 5% to 7% at the end of 2020.

With career and educational goals on hold indefinitely for many current and future college students, we now risk losing an entire generation in the college and career pipeline, affecting their knowledge and skill sets and possibly leading them to face issues with employability and productivity.

Emergency aid is helping, but it is not enough. The pandemic further exposed inequities in higher education, which California must act upon by immediately, modernizing its approach to financial aid and better ensure education equity for students. With that, the timing on AB 1456 is critical as we actively take steps to support California’s college students.

Brought forward by Assemblymembers Jose Medina (D-Riverside) and Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), AB 1456 will modernize, simplify and expand the Cal Grant program by eliminating barriers to student eligibility based on factors like their age or time since high school graduation.

By eliminating the eligibility barriers that restrict access to aid for many of the most financially vulnerable students, California can now expand access to financial aid for more than 280,000 additional students during the first year of the new Cal Grant, possibly serving 538,540 eligible students under the proposal.

AB 1456 could not arrive at a more critical time. In late 2019, the state economy was still showing signs of strength: at that moment, California’s $3.1 trillion economy was the fifth largest in the world, ranked between Germany and the United Kingdom.

The state also represented 15% of the total U.S. economy. However, California’s economy lost momentum in fall of 2020 as COVID infections started to climb and the unemployment rate reached 8.2%.

AB 1456 would have a transformative impact for both local communities and businesses, as completion of higher education improves access in a skilled workforce, strengthening economic growth and increasing individual wages. This transformative proposal could be a shot in the arm for California’s economy, as there is much to build from: California remains a main point of entry for global markets, a hub for technology and innovation, and the center of the entertainment industry.

Cal Grant Modernization has been worked on by a diverse set of stakeholders to ensure it not only makes sense for students, but also, it is smart for business. Legislators should not hesitate to adopt financial aid reform as it directly bolsters future state revenue. Just a 5% increase in degree attainment could generate an additional $4.2 billion in revenue.

Now that’s smart.

Commentary

Cynthia Murray is president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council. David Rattray is president and CEO of UNITE-LA.

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