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Cal Grants Open Doors in Higher Places

The financial aid plan approved this year has suddenly put four-year degrees within reach of many community college students who previously lacked ready access.


When California Gov. Gray Davis signed the largest state college financial aid program in the country this month, a university education instantly became more affordable--not only for high school students, but also for thousands of community college students who want to transfer to universities.

The state's newly revamped Cal Grant program will guarantee aid to qualified transfer students, and it contains a number of new provisions tailored to these students' needs and circumstances.

For various reasons, transfer students have tended to be at a disadvantage in applying for state college aid. By creating a more generous financial aid pot for them, state leaders hope to create a powerful incentive for community college students to aspire to bachelor's degrees and move quickly through the system.

"A lot of kids meet the requirements to transfer, but they don't have money to go," said Sarkis Ghazarian, transfer center coordinator at Glendale Community College. "This will be a big boost for them."

Previously, Cal Grants were limited by lean budgets and their availability varied from year to year. Qualified students were often turned away.

But on Sept. 11, Davis signed a bill that ushers in a historic expansion of the state's Cal Grant program for college students. The measure, which could cost as much as $1.2 billion yearly, is aimed chiefly at lower- and middle-income high school students who need help paying for college, including community colleges.

However, beginning with community college students who graduate from high school in 2001, the state will also guarantee transfer grants. Community college transfer students who have grade-point averages of at least 2.4, meet transfer requirements and can prove financial need, can cash in at the point they become college juniors.

The poorest of these transfer students will qualify for living stipends in addition to grants that will cover Cal State or University of California tuition. Those attending private universities will receive $9,700 toward tuition costs.

Beyond this, the program has a number of provisions addressing typical behavior patterns among community college students that have tended to exclude them from financial aid.

For example, many community college students make their college decisions late, after March financial aid deadlines. The new program allows more than 22,000 state financial aid awards to be set aside for a Sept. 2 deadline to allow latecomers to compete.

Community college students also tend not to apply for financial aid at all while in community colleges--out of ignorance or uncertainty about their long-term college plans. This has hurt their chances of getting financial aid when they transferred because grants for the neediest students were limited to those who applied for it early in their community college studies.

That made it harder for late bloomers to get grants for college: When they finally made up their minds to transfer to universities, they often found they had earned too many units to qualify.

The new program will change that, offering guaranteed financial aid to all students who qualify at the point of transfer.

College leaders say estimates on how many more students may qualify vary, but many think the effects may be significant.

Ghazarian, the Glendale counselor, said it's common to see students who don't realize that they are "university material" until they have spent some time at a community college.

"That's not the message they get growing up," he said. "They need to get some nurturing, build their confidence and then see that they have the potential."

In a separate effort, the University of California and Edison International have established a new $1.5-million scholarship program for students who transfer from community colleges to UC campuses over the next five years.

The two-year, $15,000 scholarships will be awarded to 100 students each year. UC will contribute $200,000 to the scholarship fund annually; Edison will contribute $100,000, company officials said.

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