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Commentary: Bill that would expand Cal Grants funding stops short of helping some California degree-seekers

A student studies online at home.
A student studies online at home. A reader writes that California college students who pursue online education offered by out-of-state institutions are unfairly prohibited from seeking Cal Grants.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Student loan debt is a struggle many Californians know all too well. And as the cost of living keeps rising, I reflect on my higher education journey and wish for a different outcome for California students like me who do not qualify for the Cal Grant, the state’s primary need-based financial aid program.

For me, my wife, and many other adult learners, traditional brick-and-mortar colleges simply did not fit with our lifestyle. My wife and I were both working full time to support our three children when we found online college. Yet we had the drive and motivation to complete our higher education degrees while juggling parenting responsibilities and full-time jobs. We were able to accomplish this and make a better life for ourselves and my family because of our online university.

An online higher education institution was our best option. After doing much research, we selected a fully accredited nonprofit online university that offered a high-quality education at a lower cost and with scheduling flexibility that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges could not match. The format and one-on-one support helped us to earn our degrees without cutting into work schedules and family time. We’d both go to work, come home, and when the kids went to bed, it was time to begin our studies. Now, she and I both have bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees and because of our education, we are working in jobs that we love. But as we worked to obtain our degrees, every penny was precious. A Cal Grant could have made a world of difference.

Cal Grants offer funding for tuition, fees or living expenses for low-income Californians at qualifying institutions, without having to be repaid to the state. Yet, despite being a 34-year California resident and paying into the system with my tax dollars, I was denied Cal Grant funding due to my college not having a physical location within the state.

Following the U.S. Capitol insurrection and moves across the country to undermine trust in elections, a pair of UC Irvine professors founded an academic center that will focus on the two most important tenets of democratic societies — fair elections and free speech.

High-quality fully accredited online nonprofit universities help thousands of Californians each year to reach their potential. Despite being more affordable and accessible than many brick-and-mortar California institutions and often exceeding minimum student outcomes requirements, these institutions — and the Californians attending them — are not recognized under the 50-year-old Cal Grant program. Are California residents like myself and my wife who attend online universities somehow less deserving of state investment than Californians attending brick-and-mortar state institutions?

Major updates to the Cal Grant system are in the works. A laudable bill circulating the legislature aims to expand Cal Grant funding, AB 1456 (Medina and McCarty), but it too falls short of including funding for students like me, leaving thousands of deserving Californians behind and widening the opportunity gap. California also recently passed the largest budget in the history of the state. But for many residents like me, the state budget didn’t take our educational needs into account.

As our state begins its post-pandemic recovery, students who need this funding most — out-of-work Californians, low-income essential workers, single parents, and other adults who had to postpone college because other priorities took precedent — should be a priority for state financial aid regardless of whether their nonprofit online university has a physical presence in the state. If our state leaders want to walk the walk on advancing equity and truly close the opportunity gap, expanding access to state financial aid programs like the Cal Grant is a critical first step to ensuring all learners can finance a postsecondary credential at any high-quality institution of their choice.

For low-income Californians pursuing a higher education, Cal Grant funding can make all the difference. Without equitable access to Cal Grant, many are instead forced to take out student loans, often with high interest rates, that can take years to pay back.

My online degree changed my life. It’s time we change the dated Cal Grant system to help California students finance a better life for tomorrow.

Raymond Baker is a resident of Huntington Beach.

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