California Must Further the CARES Act Relief for Community College Students

April 28th, 2020
2023 Amber Roman Headshot(1)
Amber Roman
Director of Strategic Communications

April 29, 2020

Last month, Congress passed the “CARES Act” to help the country respond to the coronavirus pandemic and provide much-needed financial relief to those impacted, ultimately approving over $2 trillion in federal spending– the largest single amount ever approved. As the saying goes, “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.”

As the coronavirus continues to prey upon human life and public health, it has also upended the education of millions of current college students, as well as many of the jobs they or their families rely upon to cover their expenses. Students have not only lost their incomes or family support, but many have been forced to move abruptly or absorb new costs as their courses shift to online formats, requiring a computer and reliable internet connection for participation. While the coronavirus is creating new challenges for all students, it is also exacerbating inequities that already existed in college affordability and how financial aid is distributed; issues discussed in our recent publication, Financial Aid in California.

The CARES Act included over $30 billion in financial assistance for K-12 schools, college students, and the postsecondary institutions serving them. A share of CARES Act funding will be sent directly to California public colleges and universities based heavily on the number of Pell Grant-receiving students they enroll. Collectively, California public colleges and universities will receive over $1.3 billion in federal support, however, this does not mean that these dollars are sufficient to the needs of students, nor will be distributed equitably. The University of California (UC) campuses serving undergraduates will receive just over $259 million, the California State University (CSU) another $525 million, and the California Community Colleges (CCC) will see $579 million.

Already, it is clear that major gaps will remain even after this necessary infusion of resources from the CARES Act. When comparing how much funding each system can expect relative to the number of students they serve, the inequities become stark. There are over 2 million students enrolled in the CCC system, about 453,000 at the CSU, and fewer than 224,000 at the UC. Because the 115 colleges in the CCC system serve many low-income students who do not receive a Pell Grant, they did not generate funding through the CARES Act proportional to their need. So even though the CARES Act requires that a minimum of half of all funding campuses receive under the law be directed towards students through emergency aid grants, this will not go far enough, especially at California’s community colleges. On a per-student funding basis, the UC ($1,160.52) and the CSU ($1,160.75) will receive very similar levels of federal support, while the CCC ($264.82) will get less than a quarter on every dollar relative to their four-year university partners.

This has dire implications for the level of student support that can be expected at each system, especially our community colleges. Despite serving 7 of 10 California undergraduate students, community colleges will receive closer to 4 of 10 federal CARES Act dollars (42%) sent directly to California public colleges or universities, further exacerbating the lack of state financial aid support for community college students. Our community colleges serve the most diverse student body of all higher education systems in California, so this inequity has an even greater negative impact on Black, Latinx, and Native American students – who represent over half – 1.1 million – of enrolled CCC students.

In the past week, another major gap emerged in who will benefit from emergency aid, as the Trump Administration announced that they will restrict colleges and universities from using any CARES Act funding from being awarded to undocumented students or those with legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A recent study by the President’s Alliance on Immigration and Higher Education estimated that there are over 454,000 undocumented students enrolled in colleges and universities across the country, with 92,000 in California alone. These students – many from families that have lost work and cannot access public assistance –face steeper costs as any other student do, but are left out from the emergency aid being offered to their peers.

As policymakers in California consider how they can help ensure colleges and universities remain accessible – particularly when many displaced workers will be seeking opportunities to re-skill as they look for new employment opportunities – we must account for insufficient aid at our community colleges and for undocumented students.

We must also press for further federal support for higher education more broadly and anticipate the impact of decreased tax revenue on state funding for higher education. The Campaign for College Opportunity has joined partners in urging Congress to support state budget investments in higher education, and such funding could then allow California to target assistance to campuses based on the number of students they enroll who receive state-based financial aid, like the Cal Grant or Promise Grant (formerly the BOG fee waiver). While the CARES Act will help colleges, universities, and students manage the immediate challenges presented by coronavirus and rapid shift to online learning, we must do more to ensure that students can access financial help to cover unanticipated costs as they consider whether to return to campus (or the virtual classroom) this Fall.

“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.” 2020 can certainly be characterized as extraordinary times. Now, we need extraordinary measures from our federal, state, and campus leaders to help keep higher education accessible and affordable for our most vulnerable students.

Read our publication: Financial Aid in California

Jake Brymner
Jake Brymner, State & Federal Policy Director