Education Lab

Colleges put in tight spot on Cal Grants

It is a perilous time to be a college student depending on the state of California to get through school.

About 335,500 students going to California colleges this fall have qualified for Cal Grants because their family incomes are so low.

They need the $1,551 grants to pay tuition, buy books or cover basic living expenses.

But without a budget for the 2010-11 year, the state is not sending out any Cal Grants.

State budgets have been late for so many years now that larger institutions have adapted. Campuses in the University of California and California State University systems -- including Fresno State -- will front the Cal Grant money to their students, then get reimbursed when a budget is signed.

But at most community colleges and some private schools, California's poorest college students are in limbo until lawmakers hammer out a budget deal -- now more than seven weeks late.

When the budget was late last year, about 15% of California's 112 community colleges advanced Cal Grant payments to students, said Paige Marlatt Dorr, spokeswoman for the statewide Community College Chancellor's Office. The number of campuses in a position to do that this year is likely to go down, said Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, an advocacy group.

"Last year [community] colleges took significant cuts to categorical programs, and colleges burned through their reserve funds," Lay said. "So that normal cash cushion has shrunk dramatically."

The delay in receiving Cal Grant money did not prevent Fresno City College students from attending classes, said Frank Ramon, the school's director of financial aid.

Registration fees are waived for Cal Grant recipients, Ramon said.

Students also receive other financial aid to help pay for books and other expenses until they receive their grant money, he said.

Most students who get Cal Grants also get other forms of financial aid, including loans and federal grants. The budget standoff in the Capitol hasn't slowed their ability to get those funds, said Tim Bonnel, a financial aid coordinator in the Community College Chancellor's Office. Some community colleges are asking their foundations to help Cal Grant students cover the cost of books.

The situation at private colleges varies. Santa Clara University, St. Mary's College and University of the Pacific are advancing Cal Grant payments. But not all colleges can do it, said Jonathan Brown, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, which represents 78 nonprofit institutions.

"They're very committed to helping students get through college, but if they don't have the cash, they don't have the cash," Brown said.

Fresno State and the State Center Community College, which includes Fresno City College, Reedley College and several campus centers, use reserve funds to keep campuses operating until they receive Cal Grant reimbursements, officials said.

Many proprietary trade schools do not advance Cal Grant payments to their students, said Diana Fuentes-Michel, director of the California Student Aid Commission, the agency that oversees Cal Grants.

"They are for-profit schools, and they see distributing the funds that they don't have as taking from their bottom line," she said.

Heald College, for example, is not advancing payment to the 2,432 Cal Grant recipients it's serving this year, President Eeva K. Deshon said in an e-mail interview. Heald has 10 campuses in California, including Fresno, where students train for entry-level positions in health care, business and legal fields.