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Like most college students, Bianca Rojas has a lot to balance—classes, papers, exams, research and so on.

Unlike most of her peers, the 25-year-old California State University, Long Beach, sociology major also has two extracurricular obligations: Jasper and Adeline, her toddlers.

Each semester, she said, she carefully budgets her financial aid, calculating the credits she can afford, given the needs of her family. It’s stressful: Last semester, she and her partner, a student at Cal Poly Pomona, had to at times take turns skipping classes to tend the children.

“I had to seek counseling because I was just overwhelmed,” Rojas said. “It was a really difficult time, because it was just not enough resources available. You find out too late, like, ‘Oh there’s not going to be childcare for you at this time.’ It’s like then what do you do? Not go to school?”

Gov. Gavin Newsom had students such as Rojas in mind this year when he injected millions of dollars into the state higher education budget to increase financial aid for young parents attending state and community colleges and universities in California

More than 300,000 California students are supported by the state’s main financial aid program, known as Cal Grant; last year, about 32,000 of them were also parents. Newsom’s budget, among other things, increased awards up to $6,000 for UC, Cal State and community college students with children, promising “real relief to our parents who are getting an education at the same time.”

But high demand and administrative delays have slowed that relief, and made it clear that more work remains to improve state aid for so-called “nontraditional” students. Those students—who are completing degrees later in life as opposed to right after high school—have become a policy focus as California seeks to boost college-graduation rates amid a projected shortfall by 2030 of 1.1 million bachelors-degree-holding workers.

Students with children “are increasingly becoming the norm,” said David O’Brien, director of government affairs for the California Student Aid Commission, which administers Cal Grants. “It’s why the Student Aid Commission is at the forefront of an effort to modernize California financial aid to better serve the needs of the student of today as opposed to what was the traditional student of 30 or 40 years ago.”

So far this year, the state has discovered at least two areas that need improvement. For one, the allocation of the additional grant money is structured in a way that still makes it hard for students with children to qualify. The state guarantees Cal Grants for eligible students attending college right out of high school, but aid for nontraditional students comes out of a more-limited grant pool.

In the 2017-18 budget year, only 25,750 competitive grants were available for the more than 340,000 qualified applicants, according to a report by the California Budget and Policy Center. Newsom’s appropriation this year increased the number of competitive grants to 41,000, but the demand still exceeded 300,000—meaning the new money for nontraditional students is still comparatively hard to get. 

The grant money for parents has also been delayed by procedural glitches, according to state officials.

“We hope to have the initial round of grants distributed by this November or December,” O’Brien said. “That’s just sort of a slight delay due to the rollout of the new program, (and) the programming of the awards into our legacy system, which we’re in the process of upgrading.”

Students have already received their standard grant awards; if they qualify, they will also get the first portion of the increased access award when the Student Aid Commission rolls it out. After this semester, the awards will be disbursed along with the regular schedule of Cal Grants and other aid the commission administers, O’Brien said.

Rojas said that while it’s great that the money will be available to student-parents during the holidays—a time she says can be stressful financially—getting it earlier would have been even more beneficial.

“It could’ve been helpful if we had it from the beginning. That, way people would feel a little bit more relaxed with how we are going to be able to budget to complete school,” Rojas said, noting that finances at the start of a semester often determine how many units a student takes.

“If there’s actually aid that could help you get through a whole semester full-time without having to work, that’s golden,” she said. “But if not, then you’re over here thinking, ‘I’m going to take less units, so it’s going to delay graduation.’ It’s like a domino effect.”

Transferring to CSULB from Cerritos College last semester wasn’t easy, said Rojas, but she did it, because she wants to continue taking care of her family and believes getting her four-year degree will help. She and her partner, Jose Yat, who live in a garage apartment behind his parents’ home in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate, had to take out loans for the first time while going to school this year. Yat also decided to stop working to make time to finish school and help care for 1-year-old Jasper and 2-year-old Adeline.

They eventually were able to get childcare off-campus this semester, but Rojas said she wished she’d known more about available resources for student-parents. She said she did not know about the increase in aid, and neither did other students she knew at CSULB and Cerritos College.

“I just feel like there’s not enough information of what else they can provide for student-parents,” Rojas said. “It’s just kinda like, ‘Go through CalWORKS; get on welfare; go through all that.’ … I appreciate that, but what about scholarships for us? What about additional financial aid? I’m happy to hear that, finally, someone thought about us, because I feel like we’re kind of just in the corner.”

Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, seconds the need for more outreach. Last April, the foundation released a report recommending sweeping changes in the state’s financial aid system, including better communication and less complexity.

Shireman, whose focus is education policy, says the amount of assistance needs to be gradually ramped up, too, to about $2 billion per year in grant aid for low-income students.  

“We are hoping and working to encourage a budget next year that has a much larger increase in investment in Cal Grants to address the gaps that we’re seeing,” he said. “First of low-income parents, but also other low income students as well.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Tax credits for renters. Consumer protection for student borrowers. More homeless shelters that allow pets.

Those were among the hundreds of ideas that California lawmakers killed Friday, as they winnowed down a huge stack of bills in preparation for the Legislature’s final sprint before the session ends on Sept. 13. Chairs of the appropriations committees announced their decisions in a rapid-fire ritual—and, in the Assembly, over the shouting protests of people who oppose a bill to limit vaccine exemptions.

Here are a few noteworthy proposals that lawmakers snuffed out Friday as they acted on legislation in the mysterious “suspense file,” where bills can die with no public explanation:

Rainforest protection: As the Amazon rainforest burns, a bill aimed at protecting tropical forests went up in smoke. Taking aim at goods such as soy, rubber and palm oil harvested from clear-cut land, it would have prohibited the state from doing business with companies whose products contributed to deforestation. Lawmakers ultimately sided with construction companies that opposed the measure.

Student loans: With student debt skyrocketing, California lawmakers proposed stricter rules for student-loan servicers and the creation of a borrower advocate to respond to complaints. But the bill withered under opposition from major student loan servicers, banks and credit unions.

Gun control: California has a “red flag” warning law that allows law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from those deemed by a court to be a danger to themselves or others. But legislation that would have trained officers to execute these “gun violence restraining orders” stalled, because lawmakers want the state agency that trains police to focus on something else: the new standard for police to use deadly force.

Homelessness: Many homeless shelters don’t allow people to bring their pets. SB 258 was an effort to change that by giving state grants to shelters that allow homeless people to bring their furry friends. Meanwhile, AB 516 would have made it difficult for cities and counties to tow vehicles from people living in them.

Housing: Affordable-housing developers have complained for nearly a decade that the state needs a permanent funding source to build more units for low-income tenants. But lawmakers chose not to advance a bill that would have done just that—to the tune of $500 million annually. Also, in a loss for tenants paying high California rents, lawmakers squelched a bipartisan effort to increase the tax credit renters can claim on their state returns. And a bill that would have given landlords more incentive to accept Section 8 tenants by providing a tax break was also nixed. More landlord-tenant fights now loom, as a controversial measure that would limit annual rent increases heads for a key vote.

LGBT equality: Though it’s illegal for an adult to have sex with a teenager in California, if the age difference between the two parties is less than ten years, the adult is not required to register as a sex offender. But that exception only applies to heterosexual intercourse, not oral or anal sex. Gay-rights advocates pushed a bill to extend the exemption to cover LGBTQ relationships also, but it got caught up in a political fight between Democrats running for a Senate seat in the Central Valley. Lawmakers declined to advance it, despite backing from the Los Angeles County district attorney. They’ll likely consider it again next year.

Campus sexual assault: With the federal government rolling back protections for college students who are assaulted or harassed, some Democratic lawmakers have been trying to re-create such protections in California—over the objections of some universities. Jerry Brown vetoed such a bill last year, and the effort stalled again Friday when lawmakers decided that SB 493 won’t advance this year.

Shopping: Fed up with ridiculously long paper receipts and fearing the chemicals they often contain, a San Francisco assemblyman pushed legislation that would have largely banned receipts at large retailers, unless customers requested one. But the bill was criticized by grocers who like old-fashioned receipts and pundits who deemed it “micromanagement in the name of progressive politics.”

Food stamps: California has one of the nation’s lowest participation rates in CalFresh, the state’s name for the federal food-stamp program, leaving $1.8 billion in federal funds on the table that could be helping hungry people. Despite no registered opposition, lawmakers held a bill that aimed to dramatically increase enrollment in the federal food aid program, but didn’t say why.

Reptiles: California is still on track to ban the importation of alligator and crocodile products, such as handbags and shoes, starting next year. In a win for animal-rights groups, lawmakers tabled AB 719, which sought to delay the ban until 2025.

Tax credits for filmmakers: With Georgia and other red states passing restrictive abortion laws, a California Democrat proposed giving $250 million in tax credits over five years for film productions to leave those states. But the proposal stalled amid criticism that it amounted to an effort to bribe companies to boycott.

Water in your beer: Every gallon of beer or wine made in California uses five to seven gallons of water, a precious resource for a state recovering from a prolonged drought and constantly worried about the next one. Major beer companies got behind a bill to require regulators to come up with guidelines for breweries and winemakers to recycle that water (for cleaning and other nonpotable purposes), but it wasn’t enough to convince lawmakers to say “cheers.”

CalMatters reporters Rachel Becker, Jackie Botts, Elizabeth Castillo, Ben Christopher, Matt Levin, Judy Lin and Felicia Mello contributed to this report. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Seth Frotman was traveling from the East Coast to California recently when he had a realization: The amount of new student-loan debt that borrowers in the Golden State had racked up over the past year was equal to all the student loan debt in the state of Maine.

Frotman spent years dealing with the fallout of the education-debt crisis as the student-loan ombudsman for the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before resigning in protest in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. Now he’s bringing his borrower-protection crusade to California.

The state’s massive population and reputation for consumer protection, he says, make it the perfect laboratory for testing whether more regulation of loan servicers can help keep student debt from mushrooming.

About a tenth of the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student debt is held by Californians, according to data compiled by Frotman’s nonprofit, the Student Borrower Protection Center. The group is sponsoring a bill in the Legislature that would establish a borrower’s bill of rights, hire a state borrower advocate to respond to consumer complaints, and monitor loan servicers’ performance.

Carried by Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Democrat from Scotts Valley, the legislation wouldn’t keep students from taking on debt, but Frotman believes it could combat the kinds of servicer abuses he says he saw while working for the federal government.

“This is a generation that gets a bad rap,” said Frotman. “‘Oh, you have too much student debt, because you eat too much avocado toast.’ But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The 60,000 student borrower complaints Frotman and his team handled, he says, “reflected people desperately trying to pay their bills and running into traps at every point.”

Among the problems Frotman documented: Companies applying payments in a way that increased fees and interest. Borrowers who were transferred to a new servicer and no longer got credit for payments they’d already made. Borrowers who were eligible for an income-based repayment plan but didn’t realize it, and ended up going into default.

California is currently suing Navient, one of the country’s largest student-loan servicers, alleging that the company failed to advise struggling borrowers that they were eligible for reduced payments, instead steering them into forbearances that delayed repayment but allowed interest to accumulate.

The Student Loan Servicing Alliance, an association of major servicers, opposes the legislation but did not respond to requests for comment or send a representative to the committee hearing where Stone’s bill passed Monday, April 22. The measure now heads to the Assembly’s appropriations committee.

Assemblyman Steven Choi, a Republican from Irvine, was among those who chose not to vote on the bill, saying he feared it would encourage frivolous lawsuits.

California undergraduates take out smaller loans on average than those in most other states—in part due to the state’s relatively generous financial aid. But student loan debt in the state still has more than doubled since 2008, and disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color.

A study released Tuesday by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and that city’s treasurer found that one in six Bay Area borrowers had defaulted in the past 15 years. In the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of black and Latino residents, the default rate was 27 percent.

California last year began requiring all student-loan servicers to be licensed by the state’s Department of Business Oversight. But Stone, who also authored that legislation, said that only some servicers are complying.

“They are essentially thumbing their nose,” he said at Monday’s hearing. “They’re operating in their own best interest, not in the interest of borrowers.”

The country’s skyrocketing student-loan debt has increasingly drawn the attention of national policymakers. Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, running for president in 2020, made headlines this week when she proposed canceling student debt for most borrowers and eliminating tuition at public colleges.

Rather than upending the student-loan system as Warren proposes, the California bill would cope with some of its worst consequences, said Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute who studies college access and pricing.

“It says, ‘We know students have debt; we know debt is manageable for many students. But we also know students run into problems, and we want a support system for those students.’”

If the bill passes, California could once again provide an example for states looking to increase their own oversight powers amid a steep decline in federal enforcement of consumer protection laws.

“The federal government is not going to ride to the rescue,” said Frotman. “There is no cavalry on the horizon.”

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

On this week's extra girthy Independent comics page: Red Meat deals with a deceased cat; Roland and Cid enjoy some free samples; The City goes back in time to look at government surveillance; a bonus version of The City compares gun control (or the lack thereof) with the growing police state; and Jen Sorenson looks at options beyond student loans.

Published in Comics