Elizabeth Clews was taking classes at a community college, working a full-time job at the local mall and living in a Toyota Camry with her baby when she learned that she no longer qualified for financial aid. 

To qualify for state and federal aid in community college — an average of $2,000 to $3,000 a year, according to one estimate — students must meet certain requirements, known as “satisfactory academic progress.” Most notably, they must maintain a GPA above 2.0, the equivalent of a C average. 

“I pretty much failed all my classes,” said Clews, who was 19 at the time and living in Ventura. “I had just concluded I wasn’t smart enough for school.” When she learned she was going to lose her financial aid too, she dropped out. What she didn’t realize at the time was that her grades also would jeopardize her chances of receiving financial aid in the future. 

If a bill by Assemblymembers Marc Berman, a Palo Alto Democrat, and Sabrina Cervantes, a Corona Democrat, becomes law, students like Clews may get another chance at aid. The bill would loosen the provisions of financial aid by forcing schools to drop additional requirements that exceed those mandated by federal law. The bill passed both houses of the state Legislature with near unanimous support and now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. 

“I think he’ll sign it,” Berman said. The bill would cost taxpayers between $3 million and $9.5 million each year, a risk that the governor may not be willing to take as the state faces a $31.7 billion dollar budget deficit

“If there’s a little financial cost upfront, there’s more long-term gain,” Berman said. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said he wouldn’t comment on pending legislation.

Every year, about 120,000 students across California’s colleges and universities lose their financial aid because they can’t meet these academic requirements, according to a rough estimate from Sarah Pauter, a senior program manager at John Burton Advocates for Youth. The organization advocates for foster and homeless youth and is a leading sponsor of the bill. 

Among first-year community college students receiving financial aid in California, it’s roughly 1 in 4 who fail to meet these requirements, and for certain groups, such as former foster youth, Black, and Native American students, the rates are even higher, according to a study by the same organization. Most who lose their aid drop out of school. 

Two years and three appeals to get financial aid

In 2016, roughly two years after dropping out of college, Clews decided to apply again to Ventura College.

“When I tried to enroll in classes, I got the same message I had received two years prior, saying I could enroll for classes but they weren’t going to give me any financial aid,” she said.

Colleges keep track of which students failed to meet the requirements for financial aid in the past and deny them aid if they try to receive it again. It’s a kind of “life sentence,” Pauter said. Students can try to appeal, explaining why they failed to get a GPA above 2.0, but every college has its own appeals process. Some are more forgiving than others. 

Clews ultimately decided not to enroll and spent the next five years working multiple jobs in retail, making just enough money to pay for child care even if it wasn’t always enough to afford a stable home. In 2020, while under the state’s stay-at-home orders for the COVID-19 pandemic, she changed her mind and decided to apply again for financial aid, only to receive the same message about her academic performance as she did when she was 19.

This time, at age 25, she refused to quit. She appealed the decision, explaining she was homeless at the time and caring for a new baby while working a full-time job. Her appeal was denied. 

She enrolled anyway, paying out of pocket for many expenses. It took her about two years and three separate appeals before the college agreed to reinstate her aid. She said she submitted the same explanation each time. 

Financial aid offices have a wide range of discretion in these policies, said Pauter, whose team has tried to track the different policies in place at California’s public colleges and universities. Every school uses the federal requirement, which is broad. Community colleges must set a GPA that is at or above the standard for graduation (most colleges require a minimum 2.0 to graduate). At four-year institutions, colleges must evaluate the academic progress of students by the end of their second year. 

But many schools have added other stipulations as well. UC San Diego requires a 2.6 GPA for students on certain athletic scholarships. Students at Foothill and De Anza community colleges in Santa Clara County must maintain a 2.0 GPA every quarter whereas most community colleges take the average of all grades earned over time. A few California State University campuses offer an even more lenient standard that allows students to earn a lower GPA in their first few years, as long as their senior year grades average a C. 

The appeals process isn’t standardized either, Pauter said. Fresno State, for instance, has a list of approved excuses and specifically mentions scenarios that “could have been anticipated” are unacceptable, such as the “need to pay living expenses” and the “need for child care.” At other schools, such as El Camino College in Torrance and Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz, such excuses are allowed.

The University of California, California State University and community college systems stayed neutral on the bill, though all three student associations endorsed and sponsored it. 

More aid and fewer death certificates

The bill would ban many of the more punitive policies by preventing California’s colleges and universities from adding more restrictive requirements on top of the federal minimum. It also sets out a list of acceptable excuses for appeals, including but not limited to “homelessness,” “loss of child care,” and “loss or change of employment.”

Of those students who lose their aid each year, it’s unclear how many would be able to keep their financial aid if the bill passes. That’s in part because the bill doesn’t change the requirements for aid; it only loosens them at colleges that have imposed stricter rules, meaning some students will still lack a sufficient GPA to qualify. 

It’s also unclear how many students who have lost their aid in the past would regain it. The majority of those students already dropped out, according to the study from John Burton Advocates for Youth. The odds that they ever return are low

While definitive estimates are elusive, Berman’s office points to the example of Glendale Community College as evidence of the bill’s potential. 

Before Associate Dean Christina Tangalakis arrived at the college in 2018, the financial aid policy required that every student maintain a C average by the end of their first semester. Under the new policy that went into effect in the following years, students now have three semesters to reach an average 2.0 GPA. She estimates that changing this policy and other related requirements enabled the college to reject about 3% fewer financial aid applications — roughly 635 students — in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Previously, the financial aid department only accepted two explanations for a successful appeal: either the student had an illness or injury or they experienced the death of a family member. “I can’t tell you over the years how many death certificates I’ve looked at,” Tangalakis said. “I’ve always thought that was demeaning and overly intrusive.”

She widened the list of acceptable excuses and the following year, she saw more than a four-fold increase in the number of appeals, from 105 students in the 2020-21 academic year to 454 students the following year.

Tangalakis said financial aid departments “wear two hats” — serving students and stewarding the use of public funds. “While we need to do both, the scales are tipped towards a more conservative interpretation of rules,” she said. She felt that mentality didn’t align with the mission of the college, which explicitly focuses on student needs and equity.

“From a policy standpoint,” said Berman, these additional rules are “unnecessary obstacles.” “The goal is for students to graduate.”

Adam Echelman covers community colleges for CalMatters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.