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Community Colleges Urge Aid Plan for Poor Students

December 22, 1999|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Community College officials have drafted aggressive measures to improve access to federal financial aid for community college students, including a districtwide advertising blitz to make sure poor students know to apply.

The district is taking these steps in response to a Times story in July that found that tens of thousands of California community college students who are eligible for federal college grants don't receive them and often don't seem to know about them.

Among other things, the district plans to deluge students with financial aid information via mailings, reminders from instructors, posters and newspaper advertisements. There is even a plan to install financial aid screen savers on computers in campus labs.

"We are going to make sure we get this changed," said Kelly Candaele, president of the district's board of trustees. Marshall Drummond, the district chancellor, said: "We have uncovered major things that can be fixed."

In reforming financial aid outreach and delivery systems, the Los Angeles district may lead the way toward changing a statewide financial aid structure that has tended to favor students at four-year universities over those in California's vast two-year college system.

Cal State students, for example, are four times more likely than community college students to get Pell Grants--the government's largest need-based financial aid program--though the latter are, on average, poorer.

Even community college students who do apply tend to apply at the last minute, and receive their money much later than their university counterparts. Los Angeles district students wait an average of 85 days before receiving their first check.

Larry Wooldridge, a student at Los Angeles Valley College, remembers having to wait a full semester for his first Pell Grant check after he went back to school.

Wooldridge is an unemployed ex-convict, dropout and former drug addict who spent nine years on the streets. Being destitute, he easily qualified for a grant. But because his first check came so late, he had to survive his first semester by eating peanut butter and borrowing twenty-dollar bills from assorted friends.

Drummond called such delays "outrageous."

Also in response to The Times story, the state Chancellor of California Community Colleges has started a grant program to encourage reform of financial aid outreach programs. In acting swiftly to address financial aid access issues, the Los Angeles district may emerge as a top candidate for such a grant, said Ed Gould, a state vice chancellor.

In interviews, community college students often said they didn't know about federal financial aid programs, or didn't believe they would be of help. Others said they applied once or twice, but didn't try again because grants arrive so late.

The problem appears especially pronounced at the inner-city colleges such as Los Angeles City College, Compton College and East Los Angeles College--the so-called Ellis Islands of California's higher education system.

At these colleges, there are armies of students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. They come out of the vast newcomer neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, Pico-Union, South-Central, and muddle their way through college on determination and guesswork.

If more of these students realized they could qualify for financial aid, it could dramatically improve retention at the colleges, and help these students get their college educations more quickly, said Yasmin Delahoussaye, vice president of student services at Los Angeles Valley College, who led the district's reform effort.

The district plans to send a financial aid mailing to all students who are poor enough to receive a waiver for fees, telling them they may also qualify for federal grants, Delahoussaye said. Also in the works are new computer systems to help students fill out applications, and new high school outreach efforts.

Streamlined financial aid processes using new computer systems, wireless transfers and centralized check distribution, are the final piece of the puzzle, she said. These changes are expected to cut delays from an average of 85 days to about 30, she said.

Wooldridge gave the efforts a ringing endorsement. With a 3.7 grade-point average and an acceptance letter from the University of New Mexico in hand, he is well on his way to his goal of working at a museum or historic landmark.

Despite bureaucratic difficulties, the Pell Grant program was a "true blessing," that turned his life around, he said, adding: "For students who are financially crippled like me, without financial aid, they've got no help at all."

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