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Cal Grant Recipient Total to Fall Short of Goals

College: The number of scholarships will rise, but thousands of students will be denied money. Millions in unspent aid may be returned to the state.

April 17, 2002|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state again this year will award fewer Cal Grant scholarships to needy college students than expected, raising the possibility that millions of dollars in unspent aid will be returned to state coffers.

Although the number of grants guaranteed to qualified high school seniors will rise from 48,000 last year to an estimated 60,000 this year, it still falls short of the program's goals, according to a legislative analysis and preliminary figures released Tuesday by the California Student Aid Commission.

At the same time, thousands of older students who competed for grants will be denied funding, as many were last year.

The figures were discussed Tuesday at a hearing called by Assemblywoman Elaine White Alquist (D-Santa Clara), who chairs the Assembly's higher education committee.

Alquist said Tuesday that she continues to be concerned about the program falling short of its goals. She said she was especially troubled about its denial of aid again this year to thousands of qualified recipients.

"The state of California has not made a real commitment yet to providing a college education to qualified students who wish to have it," Alquist said during a break in the hearing. "We're hoping for better things next year."

Touted by many admirers as the nation's leading state-funded scholarship program, the Cal Grant program was expanded in 1999 to create a guarantee of financial aid for every California high school graduate who has at least a C average and can demonstrate financial need.

In addition to these "entitlement" grants, a smaller pool of competitive grants was set aside for students who have been out of high school longer than 18 months. These grants are awarded on the basis of several factors, including grade-point average and family income.

But administrative problems, from communication glitches to overly complex forms, have plagued the expanded scholarship program, and last year it was forced to return $35 million in unused money to the state's general fund.

Alquist said millions more in unused funds might have to be returned to the state this year.

Carole Solov, a spokeswoman for the aid commission, acknowledged the expanded program's troubles but said the latest grant figures showed progress.

"We're just very pleased with these preliminary numbers," she said. "We're not finished yet, and we're already nearly 10% over last year. We've got nowhere to go but up."

So far, the commission has awarded 53,000 guaranteed grants to high school seniors for 2002-03, Solov said. Another 24,000 applications were incomplete or contained errors and can be corrected. The commission estimates that as many as 7,000 of these will eventually be accepted, pushing the total awards to about 60,000, she said.

About 22,500 competitive awards will be given this year to older students, she said, with about half of them determined now and a second round in the fall. These awards are extraordinarily competitive, she acknowledged, with about 71,000 students vying for 11,250 slots.

The mismatch in demand for the guaranteed and competitive grants concerns some legislators and commission officials. A bill to transfer the extra money from one pool to the other died in committee last year, but legislators are planning to try again.

For now, Kerry Mazzoni, state secretary for education, said she too was satisfied with the latest numbers.

"We're very, very pleased to see an increase in the numbers," Mazzoni said. "We're also hoping and expecting that they get better over time."

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