Yesterday the Governor of California announced a budget for the coming year which would slash (this appears not to be an exaggeration) away funding for many state services—in health and welfare, education and public safety to name a few. Of course little seems to be said about making the state more business-friendly to raise tax revenue, or easing the regulatory burden that seems to have driven some away. But all that is another story. Among the cuts proposed is the Cal Grant. Last year and for about a half dozen years prior, students from families who were below stipulated income ceilings, and with reasonably good grades (the kind that would put a student among the average incoming scores at the California State University system) could receive about $9,700 per year toward tuition at an independent college or university in California.
Through the ‘90s the Cal Grant grew from around $5000, and then was lowered and returned to its high point where it has remained form most of the last decade, even as tuition has increased at both state and independent schools. It’s always on the list of possible cuts in our seemingly never ending cycle of budget crises, even though it is cheaper for the state to offer the Cal Grant to educate a student at an independent university than it is to educate a student at a state supported institution. California has some of the lowest tuition rates in the country for its three state college/university systems, as well as having still some of the best universities in the world.
The Cal Grant is more than just financial aid, leveling the playing field for low-income students who want to attend Fresno Pacific University or another institution. It is the door of opportunity for these students. In the Central Valley many Cal Grant recipients are from small rural communities, most members of ethnic minorities, and the ones I have spoken with are grateful for the chance to continue their education at a university where they will receive the courses and the mentoring they need to graduate in four years, and begin their careers. Let me profile a couple I spoke with yesterday. The names below are not those of the students, but the rest is how they reported it to me.
Rosa is from the small town of Madera, just north of Fresno. She graduated this May after four years at FPU. She qualified not only for Cal Grant but also for the federal Pell grant and SEOG scholarship funds for low income families. In addition, she took out loans to bridge the gap between the scholarships and grants she received and the full costs of her education. Next year she will go into the teacher preparation program. She hopes to return to her home and teach. Rosa has worked all through her college years, and was able to graduate so quickly because the Cal Grant allowed her to be at a school where over half of incoming students graduate on time. She has friends who faced similar challenges – coming from low income families living in small towns – who needed the help of the Cal Grant to attend college and graduate. One of those friends, from Bakersfield, has a brother who has not received the Cal Grant and will probably not be able to attend FPU. He is still working on an appeal, and hopes to continue with his Fresno Pacific education just as his older sister did.
A second student whose future was changed by the Cal Grant is Ruthie. She is a graduate of Dos Palos High School and just completed her freshman year at FPU. She would have been unable to come to FPU without the Cal Grant/Pell Grant/SEOG package. Ruthie is proud to be the first member of her family to go to college. Had she not received the Cal Grant, she says, she probably would have tried to find a job, take some classes at a community college, and save money to go to a state college. She is planning to major in psychology and wants to be a school counselor and psychologist. Her younger brother will be a senior in high school next year, and he too wants to come to FPU and needs the Cal Grant to do so. Because their family income is fairly low, each of them will be supporting themselves as they progress through their college years. Ruthie mentions that she wants to stay on track to graduate in four years, and work toward her goals.
These two students are representative of many of the students who attend FPU – first- generation college students, ethnic minorities, responsible for themselves at an early age, aware of the value of the opportunity they have received, and determined to succeed. They want to return to their homes to teach, become professionals, and continue to serve as role models and a source of inspiration to those who come after them.
Fresno Pacific prides itself on working with these students, and others like them. They receive academic scholarships from FPU – usually ranging from $5,000-$10,000 and some receive performance awards as well for music or athletics for example – often work on campus, and are encouraged and mentored by faculty members who get to know them and their struggles, work with them to succeed, and take great pride in seeing them graduate and move on to help others. Both the students and the faculty realize that without this opportunity many students in this kind of situation would take much longer to graduate, or would not graduate at all.
The Cal Grant provides a means of access to education for children of farm workers and others in the rural areas of Central California who graduate, then return to their homes as professionals who give back to their communities. They have already begun this work as they inspire their younger brothers and sisters to dream of a university education. As long a California determines to provide universal access to higher education, I hope they will remember the influence of the Cal Grant and the good it has done for many citizens of this state. Given that it is cheaper than an education at a state school, it seems like a good deal for everyone.