April 23, 2021
At age 30, Stephen Kodur is on his fourth stab at college in 12 years.
He’s been attending class until his savings run out, pausing to work and build up cash, and repeating. Though his federal financial aid application says that he has the highest need, he’s not eligible for the main state aid program because he began community college several years after finishing high school.
“The fact that I didn’t have the resources made me leave so many times,” Kodur said. Had he had more aid earlier in his academic tenure, Kodur thinks he’d already possess a UC degree.
Though California’s financial aid grant is among the most generous in the country, the Cal Grant leaves out hundreds of thousands of students each year who are older and took more than a year to get to college after finishing high school.
Now the Legislature is exploring whether to expand the number of students who receive benefits and supercharge the support they receive — paving the way for a debt-free financial aid overhaul that advocates say is long overdue.
The $1,656 a year a Cal Grant gives community college students would have been meaningful for Kodur. When he was attending Reedley College in Fresno County in 2014-15, Kodur tried to save money on bus fare by riding his skateboard to campus five days a week — a roughly 16-mile round trip commute from his home in Dinuba. Eventually he moved closer to campus by couch-surfing at friends’ homes to stop paying rent altogether, but even that wasn’t enough to preserve the money he saved from working full time at a sports goods store.
Kodur left college again to work two jobs before attending Reedley once more in 2019. He’s now applying to transfer to several University of California and Cal State campuses. As president of the statewide Student Senate for the California Community Colleges, he’s been leading student advocacy to expand the Cal Grant as well as federal grant aid.
Around 40% of the 2.1 million California Community Colleges students are 25 and older, yet just 5% receive the Cal Grant. At the UC and CSU, where far fewer undergraduate students are older than 24, more than a third receive Cal Grants. Currently, students who aren’t eligible for the traditional Cal Grant can enter a veritable lottery that awards 41,000 grants annually. But because demand far outstrips supply, only about 1 in 8 students who apply receives this competitive Cal Grant.
If Assembly Bill 1456 passes and is funded this year, 240,000 more community college students will be eligible to receive Cal Grant cash stipends of $1,656 a year. Another 40,000 more university students could have their tuition covered either partially or fully, depending on where they’re earning a bachelor’s degree.
The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday after an Assembly committee passed the measure. It’s written by higher-education stalwarts and Democrats Assembly members Jose Medina of Riverside and Kevin McCarty of Sacramento and state Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino, who proposed massive financial overhauls in 2019 that failed to woo enough lawmakers.
The state Senate proposed a budget framework that largely aligns with the Cal Grant expansion while also proposing additional aid to cover the full cost of college, including housing, food and transportation that often exceed the price of tuition. The Assembly will introduce a similar budget blueprint in the coming days, and debt-free college “is high on the list,” McCarty said in an interview.