Proposed Financial Aid Reforms Could Impact Higher Education Affordability for Adults


Substantial policy reforms introduced this month could increase access to financial aid for millions of Californians, including 4 million adults in the state who have attempted college but did not complete a degree. From increasing grant amounts to changing eligibility requirements, the proposed changes aim to address a significant barrier many adults face in attempting to return to college: affording the full cost of attendance.

Why should the state focus on affordability for adult students?

Nearly two-thirds of California’s jobs by 2025 will require post-high school education.[1] California’s two- and four-year public colleges and universities are currently working to improve degree completion, but even in best-case scenarios, the state is likely to fall short of closing the postsecondary credential gap. To meet the state’s projected economic needs, policymakers need to think beyond traditional college freshmen. The new “typical” student is an employed adult—balancing work, school, and family obligations.

At the California Community Colleges, 43 percent of students are 25 or older, and one-quarter of California State University undergraduates are in that same age group.[2],[3] Many of these students are working and caring for their families while pursuing their educational goals. Yet, federal Pell Grants and state Cal Grants were built with younger college students in mind. Federal Pell Grants are not available for students in short-term or non-credit vocational certificate programs, which often cater to working adults. Cal Grants for students over the age of 28 or more than a year out of high school are severely limited. Further, some awards require students to be enrolled at least half-time, which is a course load that could be out of reach for working adults. These requirements force older adult students to compete for limited Competitive Cal Grant awards. Last year, only 7 percent of all qualified students received a competitive Cal Grant due to the high volume of applicants.

In Back to College, Part One: California’s Imperative to Re-Engage Adults, our research shows that adults with some college but no degree have diminishing opportunities in labor markets that increasingly rely on workers with degrees. These adults work in occupations that generally pay below the median salary in California of about $36,000. Helping adults return to school and move to higher-paying, higher-skilled employment boosts their individual prosperity and supports the growing needs of California’s economy.

State financial support of adult students is imperative; policymakers are now considering several options that would impact this group.

Seventy-seven percent of adults with some college and no degree hold full-time jobs and forty percent have dependents. Restrictive access to financial aid creates more hurdles for those adults considering re-enrollment. The following bills have been introduced this session with goals to either increase the number of competitive Cal Grant awards or the amount of money offered to eligible students.

Senate Bill 291: California Community College Student Financial Aid Program

Though tuition is only $46 per unit at the California Community Colleges, the total cost when factoring in additional expenses (housing, transportation, textbooks) adds up to roughly $20,000 a year.[4] Yet, most of the aid offered to community college students targets only tuition. In California last year, 972,461 community college students received a California Promise Grant, which waives course fees, compared to 120,957 who received a Cal Grant, which cover a small portion of non-tuition expenses.

In 2017, more than 340,000 students over age 28 competed for only 25,750 competitive Cal Grant awards that cover a fraction of their non-tuition needs. The number of qualified competitive applicants is not expected to decline.[5] This lack of support coupled with rising costs and obligations outside of school often limit adult students’ ability to attend and complete college.

Senate Bill 291, introduced by State Senator Connie Leyva, attempts to address this issue by establishing the California Community College Student Financial Aid Program. The bill would reorient financial aid packages away from tuition and fee models and toward students’ other costs, such as housing and food. If passed, this program would provide two-year grants to financially needy students based on the total cost of attendance for community college students, after adjusting for expected family contribution, a reasonable student contribution (defined by the Board of Governors), and other gift aid. SB 291 also aims to eliminate age, time out of high school, and academic performance requirements for financial aid recipients; it would also expand financial aid to cover all programs that are eligible for federal aid.

Assembly Bill 151: California Community College Transfer Entitlement Program

Assembly Bill 151, introduced by Assemblymember Voepel, proposes increasing the age limit for the Cal Grant transfer entitlement program from 28 to 30 so that more adult students could potentially access these awards. Increasing the age limit would mean adult students aged 28 to 30 who are transferring to a four-year institution would no longer have to compete for limited competitive awards, freeing up awards for adult students over 30 years old without compromising the amount of aid offered to those who are younger than the cut-off.

Assembly Bill 542: Competitive Cal Grant A and B Awards

Assembly Bill 542, introduced by Assemblymember Gabriel, aims to increase the total number of Competitive Cal Grant A and B awards granted annually by 3,000, from 25,750 to 28,750. Competitive Cal Grant A and B awards are offered to students more than one year out of high school and those over 28 or who do not qualify for Entitlement Cal Grant awards. The bill aims to benefit the more than 300,000 financially needy students that do not receive a competitive award each year due to the high volume of eligible applicants.[6]

Assembly Bill 1314: Cal Grant Reform Act

Assembly Bill 1314, introduced by Assemblymembers McCarty and Medina, lays the foundation to make broad reforms to the Cal Grant Program’s eligibility requirements. This bill aims to:

  • Consolidate Cal Grant A, B, and C awards and the Middle Class Scholarship Program into one program
  • Reduce current eligibility and access barriers (not yet specified)
  • Change the model of the Cal Grant Program to focus on the total cost of attendance
  • Reinstate a formula for an annual adjustment to the maximum Cal Grant award for students who attend private nonprofit institutions
  • Support additional Cal Grant eligibility for students taking summer coursework

Consolidating the Middle Class Scholarship and Cal Grant A, B, and C into one program would establish the same requirements for all of the awards, with the goal to decrease confusion around California’s complex financial aid system. While details are not yet laid out, if these measures are coupled with attempts to reduce the qualification barriers (age limit, course enrollment, residency status, etc.), this bill could increase accessibility for adult students.

Proposed Funding for Student Parents

In his January budget proposal, Governor Newsom proposed allocating $121.6 million to Cal Grant Access awards for students with dependent children. Acknowledging the additional financial strain of higher education on parents, this plan aims to increase Cal Grant A and B awards for student parents to a maximum of $6,000 while Cal Grant C recipients would see their book and supply awards increase to a maximum of $4,000.


Momentum is building for financial aid reform in California, as policymakers seek to address significant inequities due to structural policies implemented decades ago. The need to modernize California’s system of higher education is more apparent than ever before. California has long led the nation as an innovative changemaker. It is time for state leaders to embrace this by thinking outside of the box to build a system that promotes equitable opportunity. Providing fair and adequate access to financial aid will ultimately improve postsecondary success and lead to better economic outlooks for every college student, including adults.

[1] Sarah Bohn, California’s need for skilled workers, (Public Policy Institute of California, 2014).

[2] California Community Colleges, Management information systems data mart, annual enrollment count, 2017.

[3]California State University, Statistical reports, Fall 2017 enrollment2017.

[4] Mikhail Zinshteyn, California’s community colleges back new effort to cover college costs, including living expenses(EdSource, 2019).

[5] Amy Rose, Demand among nontraditional students far exceeds supply(California Budget and Policy Center, 2018).

[6] Gabriel Petek, The 2019-20 budget: Higher education analysis(Legislative Analyst’s Office, 2019).

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